“Is there anybody there?”
The first time I saw Cast Away, I found it odd that a man trapped on an island alone for four years would not once try to talk to God. After Chuck washes ashore, he wonders about the island for what seems like forever, calling to anyone who might be there to help. He’s met with only silence however, which persists. As long as he is on the island, we hear only the sound of wind and surf and an occasional falling coconut. The director, Robert Zemeckis, even denies us a musical score. And still Chuck doesn’t speak to whatever invisible spirits might be listening. Instead, the screenwriter has him talking to a volleyball.
Now contrast that with a survival film like the Gray. When Ottway (played by Liam Niesen) finds himself alone after his companions having been eaten by wolves and he himself being hunted by these same wolves, he turns to God for help.
Ottway: Do something. Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!
[receives no response]
Ottway: Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.
But in the silence of Castaway, it would seem EVEN the thought of God doesn’t exist. And that seems to be Cast Away’s point.
In two earlier videos, I’ve tried to show how Castaway is a far more subtle and interesting film than most people realize. In my first video, I showed how Castaway makes an overarching allusion to Robert Zemeckis’, most famous film – Back to the Future. Like the earlier film, Cast Away is about a character marooned out of time. The theme and images of time play at the heart of both films. While Chuck doesn’t literally go back in time, the Island represents a more primitive way of life as he reverts back to the existence of a Stone-Age man. And just as Marty Mcfly is only able to get back to the future by connecting his mast to a precisely timed bolt of lighting so Chuck is able to get back to his modern way of life by connecting his mast to a precisely timed turn in the wind.
I explored the meaning of this allusion in my second video. Through these comparisons, Cast Away underscores an important difference. Back to the Future is an optimistic comedy, told from the perspective of youth. Though it hints in the plutonium powered time-machine of the dangers of America’s then nuclear arms race with Russia, it’s ultimately about the power we have over our own destiny. Marty, through his actions, easily gets back everything he’s lost and more in the end. A new black Toyota pick-up truck parked in his garage comes to mind. By contrast, Cast Away is a serious drama about a middle-aged man’s inability to control his world by modern technology and his devotion to time. Though Chuck extolls the power of the clock (like the power of a nuclear bomb) in retraining the now defeated Russians, it’s this materialistic view which is his ultimate undoing. Chuck’s time on the island is the aftermath of a symbolic divorce. Technology gave him a sense of power and control but it ultimately drove him away from his girlfriend Kelley. The island represents a place of isolation and loneliness where Chuck is dying and learning to live again without his former sense of control. Wilson is the symbol of a split between the old and new Chuck. Wilson is the old Chuck from whom the new Chuck must separate if he ever wants to live a life off the island. But when Chuck returns home, he find himself being given the keys to his former black Jeep parked in his now married x-fiancé garage. Though Chuck gets back some things, he still has to go on letting go of the things that truly mattered to him.
The comparison and contrast between the two films is perhaps most interesting in their final scenes. In Cast Away, Chuck stands at a cross roads looking down every road. In Back to the Future Marty tells Doc as they are about to race off in the time machine, “we don’t have enough road to get up to 88 miles per hour.” To which Doc responds, “roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” At which point the time-machine begins to fly, unbounded from the limits of the road before them. It’s an optimistic message of the limitless possibilities of our future. Cast Away likewise ends with a sense of hope as Chuck appears to have found a new love interest, someone who’s had a similar journey through divorce on an island (in the Texas plains). But as Chuck looks down every road, he doesn’t seem to have the same unbounded sense of freedom. Chuck has been made to arrive at this place despite most of his choices.
While Chuck does a great deal to free himself from the island, his power and choice alone were not themselves the key to his release. The wind and the surf held him in his prison for four years until a sail washes ashore. When Chuck looks down the roads that point to where he now stands, I think he’s realizing what we’re likewise meant to realize: that Chuck was never truly alone on the island.
Cast Away is in some ways like the movie Signs. In Signs, we’re told the story of a former pastor and father who’s lost his faith after the tragic death of his wife. Graham, played by Mel Gibson, struggles with his feeling of abandonment which ultimately is revealed as hatred for God. But in the end the odd quirks of the family become the means by which we see a benevolent God working all things together for their good.
Castaway too shows us God through such signs but it never puts the pieces together so overtly. The silent subtly and very real possibility of being missed is precisely the point Cast Away is making. One of the main messages of the film is how technology and our modem way of life is leading us towards a loss of what is seen when times are less hurried. The film wants us to stop and put away our cellphones and watches (the thought of what’s going to happen next) and become acquainted with silence and peaceful contemplation and see the world again, as if for the first time. It forces us to see what we do not, in our modern way of life, take the time to see. And if it hit us over the head with its message like Signs, it would have undermined its very message. Cast Away is challenging our modern way of life which by and large cannot see God due to distractions.
These idea are more clearly expressed in an early draft of the script. Chuck is so busy that he fails to take note of the glory of the northern lights, only cursing them when they interfere with his use of technology. In this draft too, we also see Chuck being troubled by prayer, showing us that prayer (speaking to God) was on the mind of the author and that it’s absence from the final film may also be intended to communicate the same idea.
Though God isn’t directly mentioned in the film, it’s hard not to seem him being alluded to from the start. Cast Away begins with Chuck telling us who he thinks God is. He preaches a sermon about time. And paints a picture of time as a God. We must all devote ourselves to it or become sinners for our failure to obey. But it’s his devotion to the idol of the clock which fails Chuck. Chuck finds the clock broken as he washes ashore. Here, he must live in the world without the distractions of modern life, becoming accustomed to the more natural rhythms of the heavens as the earlier draft shows.
But It’s in this scene of Chuck calling out to a ship on the horizon that I think we missed something truly important. Chuck calls out to it for help with the use of his little flash light. And when that seems to fail and the dawn fully breaks, he jumps in his raft to race out to meet it. But he’s blocked and broken by the tide. A storm comes in and Chuck finds shelter in a cave. He passes out exhausted on the cavern floor. The film suggests this as a metaphorical death as the little light of his flash light likewise dies while he sleeps. Chuck’s eyes are then opened by the light of the sun (about the size of his flashlight lens) shining through a tiny hole in the cave wall.
The sequence only truly begins to make sense in hindsight. The hermeneutic circle is the key to interpretation as I’ve referred to in my video on Arrival. The meaning of the parts are defined by their relationship to the whole. The sequence begins with Chuck calling to ship. But is it a ship? Given how the sequence revolves around Chucks electric light and the more natural light of the heavens opening his eyes. I think it’s more likely that Chuck has mistaken the light of heavens (the morning Star) for a ship. Chuck calls to it but is prevented from reaching it. Instead the heavens come to him. The full brightness of the sun shines in his eyes as if to say “here I am.”
It’s this heavenly presence which remains with Chuck while he’s on the island. He marks the course of this light over the four years on his cavern wall – it’s the sign of infinity, eternity. And it’s the light which seems to be what releases Chuck from the island. The most obvious sign that this is Divinely appointed is so subtly displayed. The calendar shows that the sail arrives four years to the day that he first washed ashore.
Chuck returns to a world that is insensitive in its speed, a world that’s moved on without him. Chuck seems both cast Away and left behind. He has a new perspective. He’s quite and reserved. He walks with a leisurely pace, taking everything in.
Now at the Crossroads, Chuck seems not to be asking which direction should I go. Instead, he seems to be realizing that he’s at the nexus of where he was met to be, that every road he might have taken, would have lead him to this.
There’s a poem called “footprints” which conveys something of the idea.
Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to me, the other to the Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, You’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of suffering, when you could see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Chuck: “Is there anybody there?”