I’ve tried to warm up to the motion-capture films Robert Zemeckis has been drawn to recently (Polar Express, Beowulf, Mars Needs Moms) and failed, mainly because it feels as if they have not yet sufficiently warmed up to me. But despite his recent, animated Crapfest from the Uncanny Valley, these two live-action, survival dramas – Flight and Cast Away – are among my favorite films.
When it comes to drama about the human condition, they’re both a cut above. And they have something else in common too: Each tries pretty successfully to create the scariest jet crash ever seen on film, at the time it went before the cameras.
We probably all think, once in a while, of what it might be like to be in the one jet out of a million where something goes awfully, terribly wrong – but none of us do it with the detailed intensity of Zemeckis, who clearly has a thing for air travel. More than that, these films each focus on the aftermath of a horrible crash and try to find redemption for two very different survivors. Whether or not they find it is today’s Smack.
There are films you have high expectations for, and you want to see them as early as you can. Flight had that buzz for me. You know from the trailers that Denzel F***ing Washington is going to land a jet aircraft in a steep dive over populated territory, and he’s going to do it upside down! And it’s going to look and feel at least as real as the crash from Cast Away that had me reaching under my seat for a flotation device twelve years ago.
But there was another quality that intrigued me. The Denzel Washington character, Captain Whip Whitaker, is revealed to have had liquor and cocaine in his blood at the time of the crash. What a great hook! I mean, let’s be honest – craven and despicable as we may be out here in Hollywood, I think few of us would argue that it’s okay for the pilot of something that flies at Mach(ish) speed – an aircraft that we might actually have a seat on – to be completed baked, even if he’s Denzel. So, when people find out in this film how medicated he was on the job, that dude has got to go to jail no matter how cool he is, right? This forms the basis of actual suspense for me.
Yes, I love Cast Away and I have ever since it was first released in 2000. I reviewed it here at Smackdown against Into the Wild, a film I’m rather fond of, and still gave it the win in a knockout. Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a hotshot on the FedEx global delivery circuit who has to work on Thanksgiving. He kisses his fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt) goodbye, gets on a delivery flight that runs into bad weather, gets hit by lightning and goes down. Chuck is the sole survivor on a rocky, deserted island.
If you’re trying to reconnect memories of how you felt about this movie, let me simply say this: Wilson. This is the volleyball in one of the FedEx deliveries gone awry that Chuck paints with his bloody palm and befriends for lack of a more animated substitute. He and the ball become such buddies that you actually cry when Wilson is left behind.
I’ve seen this movie probably a half-dozen times, own it on Blu-ray and would watch it again right now with very little persuasion needed. In appreciation of the scene where Tom sees crushed ice for the first time in five years, I might even drink a fully leaded Coke in a chilled glass.
Let’s start with the plane crashes.
In Cast Away, it’s a more intimate crash, given that those involved are Hanks’ Chuck and a couple of crew. When the shit hits the fan, however, Chuck is helpless. He can’t fly the plane heroically himself and save the day. He can only watch as the pilot and co-pilot fail at that task. Zemeckis has pulled off a fantastic nail-biter of a scene, punctuated by a nighttime underwater plunge that literally takes your breath away.
It can be assumed that Zemeckis wouldn’t have attempted a second cinematic fall from the skies unless he thought he could top his first. And he’s done that with Flight. The intimacy and most of the action here are right smack in the cockpit with a hammered Denzel as Whitaker, a religious, Christian co-pilot who’s freaking out because he may not be all that sure of the afterlife thing, and a flight attendant who doesn’t want to die but is pretty sure she’s going to. Whitaker’s landing is heroism personified, and the fall and crash that Zemeckis claims were aided by motion capture finally (!) delivers the goods.
That leaves two characters to focus on post-crash, and that’s where both these films go for the jugular. Whitaker’s liquor-swilling hero with feet of coke takes us on a ride to show us how low we can go. And, with no spoiler alert needed, you can go pretty low. As the film moves through its phase of Truth or Consequences, you really start to wonder if the filmmakers will be wise enough to give him what’s coming, and your doubts come in the form of John Goodman who is funny and good as always, even if he appears to be in a different film than everyone else.
Now, Chuck, the fat and satisfied FexEx bossman, has survived the same kind of horror as Whitaker, but has a more practical problem. It is a distinct possibility that no one is coming to rescue him, maybe ever, and if he is to survive now, he is actually going to have to pilot his own new life from the ground up.
Both Hanks and Washington sink to the perfect Act Two, All is Lost moment. Whitaker is a lost soul about to testify at the hearing to determine the facts surrounding his accident. Chuck is a lost soul who has come to realize he will likely die painfully and alone.
Each of them ultimately undergoes a huge metamorphosis in order to survive going forward. Priorities have been shuffled. Things once obscure can now be seen clearly. A lot of films go for this feeling, but Flight and Cast Away actually nail it, albeit in two wildly different environments.
Flight is a great film. It will win some significant awards and be nominated for a whole lot more, definitely for Washington’s performance. And many of the people reading this would probably prefer it to Cast Away. After all, many of us have gotten away with an uncharged DUI or two, or are even familiar with lying our way through life until somebody calls us on our bullshit. Few of us, on the other hand, will ever be marooned on a deserted island.
But, for me, I love the story and the metaphor of Cast Away about as much as I like anything in movies. This is a close call. Take away Goodman’s over-the-top and unbelievable character (given the government’s role and interest), and Flight might have just barely won, because its crash is the best I’ve ever seen.
These will both be remembered and watched by cinephiles of future generations. I happen to like Cast Away best. It has Wilson. And crushed ice.