‘Cast Away’, Explained

November 13, 2018
12 min read

Imagine if fate takes an irrational twist on your life and whisks you away from civilization to a barren desolate island, where you live in constant fear of death and your loved ones consider you forever gone. ‘Cast Away’ brings to screen the horrible clutches of abandonment that a busy everyday man, who has no time for his loved ones and lives on strict routines, finds himself in. He crash lands on an island where he realizes the lines between life and death is blurring as moments pass by. ”Cast Away stars Tom Hanks, the ever-likeable golden boy of Hollywood, as he takes us on a journey that is partly spiritual and partly a survival narrative where a man gets engulfed into his elemental habitat – bare rugged nature. [In case you were wondering if Cast Away is based on a true story, the answer is No.]


Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is a routine centric, seasoned professional who works with FedEx parcel services. He travels around the world solving problems mostly related to delay in shipments and inadequacy in meeting timelines. His longtime girlfriend, Kelly Frears played by Helen Hunt finds it hard to anchor their relationship as Chuck’s dedicated professional life keeps him away from her most of the time.

Chuck, while having Christmas dinner with his relatives, is interrupted by an urgent problem that needs his attendance in Malaysia. He is dropped at the airport by Kelly who gifts him her grand dad’s compass with a photograph of her on the opening flap. Chuck, in return, also gives her a small gift which he asks her to open on New Year’s eve. The flight meets with heavy turbulence and crashes into the sea. Chuck manages to get himself on a raft but soon loses consciousness. He floats through the sea the whole night before getting washed up on to a barren island. As he wakes he walks around the island and realizes that there is no one but him living there.

Chuck starts hunting for food. Using anything sharp or strong like a tool, he tries splitting coconuts, spearing fish and finding means to sustain life within. A few FedEx packets get washed up ashore from the crash, and Chuck tries opening each. He finds a few useful items including an ice skating blade set. Desperate to find a way out, Chuck attempts to surpass the heaving waves on what remains of the life raft. However, his attempt fails, and he returns to the shore with more disappointment hanging in the air. Realizing that the only way to make any kind of food edible is to cook it with fire Chuck sets out to find means for it. Determined to make fire, Chuck rubs woods for hours and severely wounds his hand. He screams and moves around the island as his hands drip with blood.

In his frustration, he throws the contents of the FedEx packets including a Wilson volleyball. In a quick act caused by a sudden thought, he places his bloody palm on the volleyball and draws a face on it. Chuck then continues rubbing wood for a fire and occasionally glances at Wilson the volleyball. He makes fire and celebrates it by dancing around it. At night Chuck calculates his probability for survival and understands the grave truth that it may never happen.

Four years later, Chuck’s physique transforms to that of a primitive man’s, his gestures like an ever cautious life form and facial hair that almost makes him unrecognizable. He becomes the master of the land, a fierce hunter as he excels in spearing fish and making fire. While trying to make a raft, he coincidentally finds a portable toilet that washes up ashore. With available resources, Chuck constructs a raft out of timber and studies the pattern of waves. Using a sail, he pushes forward and surpasses the heaving waves, all the while making sure that Wilson is safe with him. Chuck confronts a deadly storm which rips his raft apart. As day breaks, Chuck wakes up to find that Wilson has floated far away from him into the sea. As though being separated from his only means for socializing, he swims after Wilson but fails to retrieve the volleyball. As he lies on the raft in the ocean crying, Chuck is seen by a passing ship.

Chuck is rescued and brought back to the mainland. From his friends and relatives, he realizes that he was considered dead by most of them. Chuck meets Kelly who is now married with a daughter. Kelly finds it hard to hide her love for Chuck, but both understand that they will not be able to get back to the relationship anymore.

Chuck is then seen driving across a remote land where he reaches the doorstep of a house. He keeps one of the packets that washed ashore while he was on the island which had a pair of anger wings marked on them. Unable to find anyone in the house he writes a note saying ‘ This packet saved my life’. Chuck drives away from home and on his way back, stops at a crossroad. As he stands unable to figure where to head next, a woman pulls up next to him. She tells him where each road would take him and wishes him luck as she leaves on her truck. Chuck looks on as she drives away and sees a pair of angel wings emblazoned behind her truck. Chuck smiles and gazes ahead at the same road.

The Omnipotent Protagonist

If you see through the narrative, there is an invisible yet omnipotent protagonist whose powerful presence can be felt throughout the film. It peaks with intimidating storms and calms with soothing sun rays. It speaks as the wind howls and screams as the waves heave – the ever feared, much-respected cradle of all life forms – Nature. ‘Cast Away’ lets music, language and even Tom Hanks’ performance take a back seat at times and lets ambience of nature take over the momentum of the narrative. As a man sets foot into the unknown realm of loneliness, as he is forcefully made to embrace solitude, he musters a certain amount of courage from within the environment, given to him by his primal Madre. The director deserves special appreciation for his beautifully crafted screenplay which gives us the experience of how it would be had nature lured us into its core. How will a human adapt to the true nature of nature? Where will he find solace? Who will ever listen to him? These questions do have answers if we give the film a chance to shift our perspective on solitary survival.

The dominance of nature is what makes the film spiritual in its approach; it lacks cinematic aesthetics and scores more as a grounded take on reality. How detaching from civilization arouses feelings of poignant memories, a time to appreciate the essence of existence, a time to understand the underlying purpose of the phenomenon that is life – Survival. From a space where he didn’t value human presence around him to a state where he craves for signs of life even in a volleyball which washed up ashore, dreadfully conveys to us that life needs life to prevail. A face needs another face, even if it is on a volleyball with two dots and a line, it needs it to communicate, to express and emote. Such is the fragility of the life inside us. ‘Cast Away’ speaks in volumes about all of this if we read between the lines. Everything that the lonely man tries will have us rooting for him.

Hanks: The Quintessential Choice

If you are asked to imagine another actor to don the role taken up by Tom Hanks, you may come up with several but on the inside, you may always keep coming back to Hanks. There could be an inner, more philosophical reason behind why our minds wander back to Hollywood’s most likeable male embodiment. Moulding a charismatic and realistic male lead image over the course of a few brilliant performances, Hanks has emblazoned on him the title ‘My characters shall be instantly loved’.

With that license to impress, he has been cautious of his role choices; be it the kind-hearted warden from ‘Green Mile’ or the helpless lawyer from ‘Philadelphia’. What we may be able to see through these performances, if we read between the lines, is how smoothly the good virtues converge into Hanks. Patience, calmness, composure, gentlemanliness, all flock together into him making him the most powerful ‘virtue magnet’ out there. Versatile in bringing out a barrage of emotions, this man single-handedly has engulfed the gentleman image from the film industry. That, in fact, makes him the quintessential choice for ‘Cast Away’.

Representing each one of us, the ones who will tremble at the sight of solitude, the ones who will be shattered beyond repair at the face of abandonment, the ones who make a thousand phone calls if our spouse or children don’t ring the doorbells on time, Hanks steps in and endures on-screen the harrowingly painful experience we all may have nightmares about. Laying bare a time-bound man’s hysteric meltdown in a performance that is close to perfect, Hanks gazes right into our souls arousing poignant emotions and a subtle question lingering behind all of it – ‘Are you really appreciating the comfort of company life is offering?’.

The Reverse Clockwork Orange Theme

In layman’s terms, Clockwork Orange can be defined as a ‘Mechanical Orange’. Imagine an orange that has a built-in mechanism which looks after its functions. Like how it is in Kubrick’s classic, a young man full of energy and vigour (but no direction) is put into a system that changes his character forever.  When we come to ‘Cast Away’, a time obsessed man is stripped off his ‘system’ that works as his lifeline and forces him to get into another one where he toddles through an excruciating scenario. The concept is ever powerful being able to hit us with strong messages of survival from two perspectives: one where the life form is put into a system, the other where the system abandons the life form. ‘Cast Away’ handles the ‘marooned man’ saga with ease and makes it count with a single performer. Proliferating an underlying theme “Take a break and feel the rugged life” also comes across as a partial trigger for globetrotters – a fantasy ‘what if ‘situation all travelers would love to experience.

For those who cannot imagine the ‘break free’ state, the film flaunts, ‘Cast Away’ will remain a gruesome experience but an eye-opening one to never embrace loneliness and seclusion. Taming the mind with a gust of salted winds of the seas and the wavy sand, Chuck embraces the life without a system, survival without deadlines. There is no hurry except for keeping oneself alive. There are no midnight calls, no scheduled meetings, no ambitions to conquer, no bank accounts to fill – just the never-ending sound of the sea as it blends into the horizon where only one celestial body acknowledges the little life form – the Sun.

The Ending

The climatic theme of ‘Cast Away’ speaks in volumes about a man breaking his shell and escaping the clutches of time, fear and insecurities. Once Chuck gets back, he visits the suburban ranch to deliver a package he held on to for 4 years. Did he have any reason to be particularly affectionate towards that one package we may ask? The answer is, on the outside, no. But then again if you notice, desperate times will make us look for signs of God, anything that would induce some confidence and hope in us to carry on. In Chuck’s case, he finds it in the package with the ‘Angel wings’. Symbolism is at play here, as he starts believing that the image of the wings is his guardian angel looking after him, adding more confidence to his journey as he sets out on the raft to find a way out.

After returning home and recoiling his long-lost friendships, the narrative takes Chuck back to the ‘Angel wings’. His conscience is now clearly telling him that the owner of the packet is someone special. But he never gets to see the person while delivering the package. A clever play by the scriptwriters as they clearly felt a different scenario is where the character should be introduced. That is where Chuck finds himself in the last scene, at the crossroads. He now has the courage to take the road less travelled, he has mustered enough strength to venture to places he has no idea about. As he waits, the girl from the pull-up truck tells him where each road would take him – becoming the coincidental guide. Chuck hears her out and as she leaves he sees the angel wings marked on her truck’s tailgate. He looks at the road she takes and smiles. The only way to explain his gazing smile is, ‘There goes my guardian angel, the one who brought me home and perhaps the one who will show me the way ahead’.

Final Word

‘Cast Away’ is grounded in reality – the plot and performance gracefully achieving what most filmmakers only can dream about. There could be more stories where a man finds himself painfully caught up inside the paradox that is nature, but ‘Cast Away’ transcends the struggle and brutality of it to convey a more spiritual message. A message that is universally relatable for all of us, that on the inside, we are all fragile and vulnerable, just like all creations of nature. That we are all forever meant to be obsequious to the omnipotent power of nature. Accepting the same will mould our character and personality and will give us a perspective shift on how to look at life through the right lens. Two decades have passed since ‘Cast Away’ released, but just like how the protagonist of the film ends up relieved from the clutches of time, the film is bound to no judgments from the parameters of time.

Read More in Explainers: The Graduate | Life of Pi | No Country For Old Men