I feel no guilt in laying out the three acts of Cast Away, as it's important to touch upon each one separately. Act I: A chubby Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a workaholic FedEx representative who is decent enough, but married to his job, and leaves his long-suffering girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) on Christmas in order to tend to work. His plane crashes quite frighteningly into the Pacific, which leads us to a lengthy Act II: Chuck struggling to survive alone on a tiny deserted island for four years. Act III: A slimmed-down Chuck, now more world-weary and -wise than he could ever have imagined, is rescued and brought back home, where he tries to catch up with his girl and the rest of the world.
Let's take a look at each act, shall we?
Act I is solid, though it doesn't do much beyond establishing Chuck as a clock-obsessed middle-class bore and showcasing Zemeckis' talent for suspense during a truly incredible plane crash sequence.
Act II is where you'd think the film would get into trouble, as it's an entire hour of Hanks alone on the island, occasionally talking to himself (and to a volleyball that washes up on shore) but mostly just keeping quiet, trying to survive. It could have been boring. It could have been an annoying display of actorly self-indulgence. That it comes off as a rather gripping look at a human being trying to stay alive and sane in a remote wilderness is a great relief. (Most thankfully, there is no musical underscoring in this entire section.)
Act III... Now this is where Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. make a big story decision that, well, I may not have: instead of displaying what would have most likely befallen the returning castaway - instant celebrity, false friends coming out of the woodwork - they keep it almost as simple as it was on the island. Chuck just needs to make peace with Kelly, who has moved on, and ask himself just what his place in the world is, now that he's been through the worst and grown to see how empty his old life had been. And while it still satisfies, I can't help but wonder what could really have been said about the world we live in had Zemeckis - a clever filmmaker who was once quite adept at satire - decided not to go soft.
At least the last act is saved from cheesiness in two instances, as it aims for something deeper than the expected romantic happy ending. (Some may disagree; the final scene is ambiguous.) At the end of Cast Away, I felt that I had just watched an honest portrayal of what anybody - you, me, even a Hollywood superstar - might do if put in Chuck's extraordinary situation. On that front, the film is certainly a success.