Tom Hanks gets stuck on a desert island. That's the plot. There's a surprisingly long final act after he's returned to civilisation, but we're basically talking Robinson Crusoe.
I just thought I'd get that out of the way before I started talking about Hanks, since everyone seems to love him in it. He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for both an Oscar and a Screen Actors Guild award. I'm not sure I quite get the adulation, but I'll happily agree that he's good.
I seem at odds with the world about Tom Hanks. I think his consecutive Best Actor Oscars in 1993-94 seem to have got him cast in roles for which I wouldn't have chosen him, such as Saving Private Ryan and The Road to Perdition. When I think of the guy, I think "everyman". He's likeable enough, a bit bland, popular with studio executives, always does a thoroughly professional job and has managed to be in some outstanding movies. He's a bit like Tom Cruise, perhaps, except less pretty and not a Scientologist. In this movie, the best word to describe him might be "efficient". I have trouble imagining anyone watching it because they're a fan of Hanks's acting, but he's dependable. He does everything that's required and I quite liked him at the end as he rediscovers civilisation after all that time lost in the ocean. He seems spaced in a way that's very believable.
Also, to be fair to him, he's supporting a 143-minute movie almost single-handedly. Not all of it is set on the desert island, but no matter where we are, it's always centred on Hanks. There are probably only a couple of minutes where he's off-screen. In some ways it's a self-effacing performance, since his character isn't by nature a reflective one and for a lot of the time Hanks isn't projecting anything except a desire to catch fish or crack coconuts. The character isn't stupid, mind you. He has a good brain. It's just that he'd always been an organised, goal-oriented person who flew all over the world, was ruled by his personal organiser and was mildly obnoxious in his efforts to impose punctuality on Russians. Contemplation was not him. Obviously that lifestyle's about to change in a big way, but even marooned on an island with all the time in the world, he never comes across as reflective. Look at how he opens those Fedex packages, for instance.
I can think of three things that Hanks does well here. Firstly, he carries this long film and makes it look easy, despite being asked to go to some extreme places in the process and take his character through more than one complete transformation. Secondly, it's a completely different ball game when he's back in civilisation and I thought he did well at portraying this shellshocked fish out of water.
Then, thirdly, there's his relationship with Wilson the Volleyball. He finds a volleyball, you see, and draws a face on it. Before long, it's become his only friend.
However all that said, I think a lot of the praise is simply due to the role being Oscar-bait. He does a solid job in a colossus of a role, but I still wouldn't say he was brilliant or anything. The main thing he's bringing to the role is his Tom Hanks-ness and you'll merely go away thinking he was good, whereas there have been actors who'd have knocked us sideways with this material and left the audience barely able to climb out of their seats. Additionally I didn't believe his physique. I've no problem with Tubby Hanks, but Thin Hanks (fifty pounds lighter) has supposedly been stranded on this desert island for all this time and yet he's still soft around the belly.
So that's Hanks. He's good, not to mention well cast. Next?
I'm going to be talking about the island for a bit, obviously. It looks lovely, but if you were there you'd soon be wanting to get back to your hotel. Zemeckis does a good job of making us feel the weight of the situation, so for instance the "ouch" bits really are "ouch" and I was convinced a shark was going to attack Hanks when he was swimming off after Wilson. The DIY dentistry particularly had me squirming. A lot of the film is dialogue-free, obviously, and for the most part there's nothing to do except try to stay alive and maybe get off the island, yet there are no problems with the film dragging or being dull. It's more fast-moving than I'd expected. It's surprising how interesting it is to watch Tom Hanks stripping the bark from trees to weave into home-made rope, or rubbing bits of wood together in an attempt to make fire.
The film also has fun with those Fedex packages I mentioned. The producers drew up a list of almost comically useless items (e.g. ice skates, video tapes), then asked some survival experts how someone in those circumstances might find a use for them. Zemeckis likes to joke that the one Fedex package Hanks's character never opened contained a waterproof, solar-powered satellite phone.
There's one thing I'm glad I didn't notice, though. The film contains in-jokes. Hanks's car's license plate says "KAZ 2AY" and his character's name is Chuck Noland, i.e. C. Noland ("see no land"). There are shots and story elements that are a homage to The Ten Commandments, Forrest Gump, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Prisoner. Sigh.
Reading up on the internet, I see Roger Ebert liked the desert island best and thought the film lost it a bit when we were back in civilisation. Personally I liked the bookending material a lot. It makes it a more complete film. The beginning is teasing us with all these things we know Hanks is about to lose, such as time pressure, doctors, dentists, a pen knife and a massive Christmas dinner with the family. That was mischievous. "See you on New Year's Eve." "I'll be right back." Then conversely the finale shows us what it's like to regain those things as Hanks emerges, blinking, into the light and tries to come to terms with the fact that he's supposedly got his life back. He hasn't, of course. Everything's been turned upside-down and he's never going to be the same, but that strikes me as a more interesting story to tell than "man eats raw fish on desert island, then escapes".
Helen Hunt's good too, by the way. She's playing his fiancee and I liked their scenes together a lot.
I didn't go crazy for this film, but I liked it. It's good. I'm not a Tom Hanks fanboy or anything, but I thought he tackled a gargantuan role here and did a professional job of it. Absorbing situation, convincingly portrayed. Particularly recommended for children and people with language difficulties. Oh, and it was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound (which is minimalist) as well as Best Actor.
"Coconut milk's a natural laxative."