What happens when everything we hold on to is taken away from us?
This is the story of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), trouble-shooter for Federal Express, who travels to Moscow to remind the wayward Russian office that “We live or die by the clock.” Before leaving home, he sent a timer to himself in Russia, so that he could track down to the second the time it took to be delivered. He is proud of a new facility that is the ultimate marriage of technology and systems.
He goes home for Christmas Eve, only to be paged in the middle of dinner. He is needed in Asia. He quickly trades gifts with his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt) on the way to the airport, before racing off, promising to be back for New Year’s.
But he does not keep that promise. The plane crashes in the Pacific, and everyone else is killed. Chuck is washed up on a deserted island. Suddenly, all he has is time.
At first, he expects to be rescued. He efficiently retrieves the Federal Express packages that wash up on the shore and sorts them into piles for delivery. As it is borne in upon him that he is alone and completely out of reach, he starts to open the boxes. We see that these precious items of enormous meaning to the people who sent them — divorce papers, videos, a tulle party dress, ice skates, a volleyball — have little value on a deserted island. Noland (“No Land”), a problem-solver by nature and profession, gets to work, using the net from the dress to catch fish and the ice skate blades to crack coconuts. The volleyball, stained with his own blood, he makes into a companion named “Wilson” (after the ball’s manufacturer).
For 45 minutes in the middle of the movie, we are alone on the island with Noland. There may be crystal waters and azure skies, but this is no “Blue Lagoon” and he is no Brooke Shields. There is no music, and almost no dialogue. It is brutal and painful. He shreds his leg on coral and has to extract an abscessed tooth. Noland is an engaging character (signing “Light My Fire” when he finally is able to get sticks to light), and Hanks is undeniably one of the world’s most engaging actors. But it is more impressive than involving and begins to seem more of an acting exercise than a saga about the triumph of the human spirit or the importance of love and family.
No matter what deprivation he endures, Noland leaves one package unopened. It has an intriguing insignia on the return address, a pair of wings. He holds on to it as a promise of escape and as a symbol of his continuing identity as a man who gets the packages delivered.
Four years later, the side of a cabin bathroom is washed up on the island, and Noland has what he needs to create a sail. He knows the tides and the seasons well enough to begin to plan an escape from the island, and he knows that he would rather die on the ocean than stay where he is. What finally made it possible for him to leave was not the reason he relied on in his old life but the hope he has learned on the island. Still, it is his sense of the press of time (“let’s not commit the sin of turning our backs on time”) that it spurs him to action.
There are some moving and beautiful moments on the raft, especially the glimpse of a whale’s eye peeking just above the water. But once he gets home, the movie falters. We know, though, that the world he left now seems strange to him and that it will take a long while for him to reorient himself and decide where he will go next. He has mastered the skill of spearing a fish and making a raft, but he has to learn a whole new set of survial skills back at home.
Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language, a very scary plane crash, a dead body, and scenes of peril (some bloody). The deprivation and losses may be very upsetting to some children and teenagers. Noland considers suicide, and speaks of attempting it, which some people may also find disturbing.
Families who see the movie should talk about what is left when we strip away the conventions and conveniences of our society. How do we decide what our priorities are, and what our values are? Compare this movie to other desert island sagas, from “Lord of the Flies” to “The Admirable Crichton.”
Families who enjoy this movie might also enjoy one of Hanks’ less successful comedies, “Joe Versus the Volcano.”