The hardships in my life are pretty much defined by modern inconvenience: missing plane flights, being cut off in traffic, nosebleed seats at a Springsteen concert and restaurant food that is brought to the table cold.
Maybe that’s why I find both of these films so damn compelling.
Within a context of modern society, they strip away all the physical and mental support structures we live surrounded by and reduce their characters to the grim basics of survival. We’re not talking about Survivor like challenges, but the real deal, where the stakes aren’t being voted of the island or eating an insect, just the implacable logic of complete self-sufficiency with an ultimate penalty for failure. My youngest son and I for years have had this affection for Cast Away — having seen it together in the theater, then several more home viewings — always compelled by the hardship of truly living on a deserted island. We saw Into the Wild when it came out in the theaters and again this evening on DVD, knowing that it was a true story, and more than ready to go back to this wild place that has touched us.
Into the Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless (played brilliantly by Emile Hirsch) and is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer. It is hardly a spoiler to point out at this stage that the film ends badly for McCandless. It’s not about his ending; it’s about his journey. And what a journey it is. After graduating from Emory, the 20-year-old McCandless comes unhinged from his ties to family, to friends, to things and, ultimately, to civilization. Along the way, he meets a collection of colorful characters, all based on true people, and played by a sensational ensemble of actors like Hal Holbrook, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener. This journey will lead him to the Alaska wilderness where much of the film takes place, intercut through flashbacks to his travels. Finally, though, McCandless is alone in the wild, with no one to count on but himself and, sadly, that is not enough.
The Defending Champion
Cast Away is a modern Robinson Crusoe story without Friday or cannibals. In this film, Tom Hanks plays Fed Ex supervisor Chuck Noland who survives a plane crash somewhere over the Pacific and washes up on a small, deserted island. Suddenly, the time-obsessed Noland is a man with no need for watches, calendars, schedules or on-time delivery. His biggest problem, being the overweight modern man that he is, is that he may not have even the rudimentary survival skills necessary to make it long enough to be found and saved. It’s a fasincating film structure: bookended by modern civilization, Noland’s time on the island is divided into two portions, the first is learning to survive and the second is a flash-forward of four years where he is now a rain-thin, lean, survival machine. This film glories in just watching Tom Hanks do things: crack coconuts, spear fish and build fires. Did I mention the performance of painful dental surgery? Yep, that’s there, too. The ending back in civilization, contrived as it is, worked for me.
Into the Wild is a true story, and Cast Away is just a story. This cuts both ways. The entire viewing experience of Into the Wild is tinged by tragedy and sadness; there’s no escaping it. That reality, however, is what makes it powerful. On the other hand, Cast Away is just a story, a parable, and it can end anyway that the drama needs to be constructed. And, as I’ve said, the ending here, for me, wasn’t as simple as it could have been and, as a consequence, it has been for me hugely satisfying.
Both films are remarkably acted with the stars delivering truly phenomenal performances. Both Hanks and Hirsch lost considerable weight for their own starvation scenes.
How they came to be in their respective situations obviously divides these two films. Hanks has been cast away in his film by a cruel twist of fate and is more like you and me, which is to say, completely and totally unprepared to survive on that island. Hirsch, however, is a young man with a plan who has had ample time to dream up his escape, to plan for it, and to prepare himself mentally. The Hanks’ dilemma is more universal and, therefore, more relatable.
How the two films deal with “opening up” their narrative is also quite different. Cast Away is bookended by civilization with Hanks completely on his own in the middle. Into the Wild chooses to thread civilization and Hirsch’s journey through the fabric of the entire film by way of flashback. It’s obvious why Into the Wild had to do this. A simple chronology would not be compelling and the wilderness survival part would have simply been to grim and depressing to bear.
It’s possible to argue that Cast Away would be a much better film without the bookends; it certainly would have been different, maybe more compelling. And it’s equally possible to say that Into the Wild would have been improved by having fewer or none of the constant voice-overs from the McCandless character’s sister.
I love both these films, as you can tell. Neither is perfect either. I know that many people reading this are going to disagree with me here and, frankly, I could almost write their arguments for them. My decision, though, is emotional only, pure and simple. While I am deeply grateful that someone made Into the Wild and I enjoyed watching every minute of it, the truth is I just plain love Cast Away. It works for me on levels I’m not even able to fully explain but, even so, it works a powerful spell.