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 â€” having seen it together in the theater, then several more home viewings â€” 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.
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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.
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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.
Maybe having read the brilliant book “Into the Wild” colors my perception, but to me the movie was profound and resonated deeply. ‘Castaway’, although enjoyable, was a just cartoon.
Nice article. I really appreciate your knowledge about films.I watched “Cast Away” just a few months ago because my brother was visiting from out of town. It was a good film and Hanks’ performance was brilliant.
Cast away is such a nice movie =D I love it..
Tom hanks is my favorite drama actor!!
I also love his War movie..SPR!
Great review. Love Smackdown!
My youngest son and I have watched it three times (I think) and I got him a Wilson off e-bay for Christmas. Don’t tell him!
Have to say I agree with the result on this one…. Cast Away is one of my favourite Hanks films, and one of my favourite Zemeckis flicks too. brilliant storytelling using minimal dialogue for vast sections of the film really indicate just how good Hanks is at being able to develop a character even when he’s got nothing to say…. Wiiiillllsoooooon!!!!!!!!!!!
I hate that I now know the ensemble cast of ‘Into the Wild’ because now I might be tempted to see it. And maybe I do need to see it, simply to understand why this foolish young man has been romanticized to the point of inspiring books and movies. If this movie wasn’t based on a true story, it would have never been made because the basis of it is so implausible. What schmuck tromps off into the Alaskan wilderness with a bag of rice and some books and doesn’t bring a compass or a map?? Because it is true, somehow it validates the poor poor choices that Mr. McCandless made when embarking on his ill-fated inner journey. “Castaway” wins the Smackdown! hands down, not just because Tom Hanks is brilliant, but because this is truly a case of truth being stranger than fiction. And frankly, the true story just pisses me off!!
I didn’t think either flick had affected me until, a few mornings after I viewed “Into the Wild,” I woke up with an image of the final shot of the film seared into my eyelids. It’s been a long time since a movie did that to me…I go with “Wild’ because Hanks is like bosses I used to have, Hirsch like a couple of lifelong friends. Think Bob Seger’s “Beautiful Loser.”
I’m not a big fan of either of these films. I watched “Cast Away” just a few months ago because my brother was visiting from out of town. It was a good film and Hanks’ performance was brilliant. I was also dissatisfied with the ending, but admired the fact that they acknowledged that life isn’t always wrapped up neatly in a bow the way movies and sitcoms would have us think. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think, ‘I want to see this again.’
“Into the Wild,” on the other hand, was painful to watch. I was annoyed by McCandless and his parents. The entire time I watched the film I just kept thinking, ‘Dude, WTF?’ I watched the film on DVD and I must admit that when I was disrupted from the film – about halfway through – I couldn’t make myself go back and finish it.
I like Cast Away than Into The Wild. Both actors played impressively, for a start, but I just couldn’t help but think why would someone like McCandless did what he did. Here, McCandless voluntarily went into the wild, while Noland involuntarily cast away. Just by this difference, I sympathized more for Chuck. Then endings were both bitter, but at least Noland had a better ending. I also like Cast Away better because despite his unfortunate fate, watching Noland living his life in the island was at some times, fun and humorous. Into the Wild, on the contrary, was somewhat frustrating. Thus, I definitely prefer Cast Away.
Wow. Bryce I agree with your decision here, both films are amazing but “Cast Away” is simply better… well said.
Maitai… “Cast Away” is a true “journey” movie and, rather than die sadly at the end, the protagonist just keeps on traveling. That’s why we like it. Don’t you think?
Hi everyone. I haven’t seen Into the Wild, but I have been a die-hard Cast Away fan for six years now, ever since the movie appeared in my home country. Hungary, that is.
I’m so happy that you found Cast Away “better”. It makes me feel I’m not crazy to love that movie so much. Thank you for sharing this.
Good call Bryce. I agree..though I loved both films, Cast Away had the edge in my opinion. The run times were similiar, but Into The Wild felt really really slow at points. Even though it wasn’t based on a true story, Cast Away actually left me feeling more for the protagonist than did Into The Wild.
Bryce, the phrase “works for me on levels I’m not even able to fully explain” is so true for me when comparing movies. And I think that’s the reality for critics (and moviegoers) generally. Unfortunately, most critics then try to justify their preference in an objective way, which is ultimately dishonest.
So I’m with you. Both movies are incredibly well-made; I just found Into the Wild had more of impact on me emotionally. It made be relate to the alienation I felt upon reaching adulthood and expecting life to be morally black and white when, of course, it isn’t. I respected the movie so much for being able to take me back to that place.