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A certain professor once told me that purposeful symbolism is at best insulting, and at worst just plain stupid, but its ineffectual either way. I dont think I ever really got the full force of his idea until I watched Cast Away, a movie so filled to bursting with what it thinks are clever signs, symbols, and metaphors, that it shoves down your throat, it is simply impossible to take seriously. Its also a movie without the slightest respect for the intelligence of its audience (notice if you will that the trailers told you absolutely everything there was to know, and made seeing the film itself redundant), and so everything is spoon-fed to you. Oddly, the only semi-clever thing about the movie is its title, and no one seems to have gotten the joke (for proof, just ask anyone the name of the movie). Castaway, (Ill pretend I think youre as stupid as this movie does) is a word see, but not the title of this movie.
If we look at the bare essentials, there isnt really anything wrong with Cast Away, except that its really only 25 minutes long, tells a story I find particularly stupid, and has as its best developed and most interesting character..., a volleyball.
The story is that of a man engaged to the love of his life, who clearly (or eventually, who knows?) believes he is the love of her life as well. A plane crash leaves him washed up on a desert island, where he is trapped for 1500 days. When he returns, his previous fiancee is married and has a child. They both admit, or reiterate, or whatever, that they are the loves of each others lives, but she goes back to the man she married. Our hero then is..., no I wont say it, lets see, he goes away how about, and tries to figure out what to do with his life now. If we were being generous, we might even throw in the bit about how he is a time obsessed man to start with, and has to go through a lot of changes (umm... duh) during all that time he spends on the island.
If you were telling that story in a movie, and you really wanted to torture your audience with a meaningless (to the overall story), babbling tangent, you might spend a whole twenty minutes on the part that goes, A plane crash leaves him washed up on a desert island, where he is trapped for 1500 days. In Cast Away it is virtually the entire film. It is so much of the film, in fact, that you couldnt possibly care about the rest of the story.
The story, if we had any characters, is one that could really get people talking. There could be something to the idea of the fiancee who goes on with her life, and out of some sense of responsibility (or cowardice, or whatever) chooses not to go back to the love of her life. But, in this movie, when she doesnt go back to him, the movie obviously wants you to care (the scene is drowning in sap), but how can you? You barely remember her, and you certainly never knew her any better than the child you never even meet.
Im reminded of the scene on Seinfeld where the woman playing Elaine on the show-within-the-show breaks up with Jerry. I think we should break up, she says. Jerry replies, Were we going out? Thats about the emotional investment you have going into the final, whipping together of a story in this movie. Shes not going back to him? Fine. Were broke up. Who are you?
Its a movie where something that is nothing more than the lead-in to why this story is a story at all, is instead the only thing we focus on. Twenty minutes of introductory life-altering event, and an hour or so of dealing with it, is a story. Getting that the other way round is to just have no idea how to tell a story. Imagine the version of The Bourne Identity where the part of the story with our hero on the fishing boat lasts 100 minutes, and we condense the rest of the story into the last ten.
Its a love story that thinks its a character study, or a character study that knows it isnt nearly good enough to survive without a love story. Whatever it is, its a great jumbled mess with no sense of what it is at all.
To add insult to injury, nearly every moment we see our man on the island is a metaphor, or is using some blatant symbolism. He eats, drinks, breathes, and sleeps metaphoric statements on life and humanity. He never gets a break from it.
Much of it, however, is easy to watch. Hanks has some funny moments, and there is little of the blame you can put on him (or at least his acting skills). Hes good. It just doesnt matter.
Just when you thought it couldnt get worse, the symbolism never ends. At the very end of the movie, after our heros love has not returned to him, he is left at a place in his life where he doesnt know what to do. He doesnt know what direction to turn. Hes left his life, suddenly returned, and doesnt know where he fits. Hes at a (lets call it) turning point in his life, clearly. At this point in the movie, as we head toward the denouement, the movie does not show, does not casually let us see, but actually forces us to stare for long moments at..., the crossroads our hero stands next to. Its such a patently absurd symbol to force on us, that it is even a difficult sentence to see clearly. I cant say the crossroads our hero has come to, because the symbol is so ridiculous you couldnt be expected to think that I mean he has literally come to the intersection of two roads.
Sure, most of what happens on the island is entertaining in a way. Its just not part of a movie. If this movie had its way, none of the parts where Hanks isnt on the island would exist at all (In fact, with a little work, thats easily the better film). It just doesnt care in the slightest about any of those bits, and it doesnt care if you care about them either. The love story was just tacked on at the last minute so we can pretend there is a plot.
The movie is at best insulting (you cant even describe the symbolism with a straight face), and at worst just plain stupid, but either way its utterly ineffectual.
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