f you haven’t been to the movies in ten years, don’t worry: Tom Hanks is still playing a sympathetic schmoe who gets shipwrecked on an island in the south pacific, faces grave dangers, and comes out not only alive but happier. In 2000 it was Cast Away. In 1990 it was Joe Versus the Volcano. Except that Helen Hunt replaces perennial Hanks co-star Meg Ryan in the newer version, the two films have a lot in common. In both films, corporate man goes on vacation and gets in touch with his animistic spirit side, and then returns to civilization like an unrhyming ancient mariner, a wiser and humbler man.
What you see in the similarities and differences between these two films reflect both Mr. Hanks evolution as an actor interested in exploring "meta" themes and also, unfortunately, a wider cultural trend of fatalism and pessimism that has grown as Hollywood attempts to deliver more "real" or "authentic" fables through illuminated celluloid manuscripts.
In 1990, John Patrick Shanley was both writer and director for Volcano, a goofy but earnest redemption tale billed as "A Story of Love, Lava, and Burning Desire." Hanks plays Joe Banks, a hypochondriac advertising librarian of a medical supply company on Long Island City. The film opens with the superimposed script of a fairy tale: "Once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job." We open on Joe and his colleagues going to work in scenes that are reminiscent of such classic labor films as Metropolis and Modern Times, in which sheep-like employees try to tolerate another day of grinding dehumanization at the hands of a meaningless capital labor market. Joe’s path to work is an uneven sidewalk laid out in a bizarre maze that, when seen from above, forms his company’s logo. Joe’s company is American Panascope, "home of the rectal probe" and metaphorically, it is to such a location that Joe ends up shoving his job after learning that he only has six months to live when a doctor informs him that he has a "brain cloud."
The next day, a mysterious billionaire makes Joe an offer he can’t refuse: live like a king and die like a man, by living richly for as long as it takes to sail out to a remote island named Waponi Woo, and then jumping into the island’s volcano to satisfy the local god’s 100-year need for sacrifice. Natives of Waponi Woo, it turns out, are too addicted to an orange soda ironically named "Jump" to be interested in performing any of the actual jumps required to propitiate the local volcano god. The entire diagnosis of Joe’s disease, Joe’s flirting with and then falling in love with Meg Ryan’s third character, Patricia, and the Volcano sacrifice all turn out to be a strange conspiracy concocted by the mysterious billionaire, who happens to be Patricia’s father.
The father, though we don’t see him more than once in the film, seems to symbolize random chance and Satan simultaneously. Patricia says, "My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant total amazement." While this sounds like something Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, it is actually much closer to what the serpent meant when he said to Eve, "Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God." The billionaire’s name is S. H. Graynamore (Gray no more, hinting at Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) and his offer to Joe is the very Faustian bargain of living like a king (briefly) and dying like a man (permanently), the offer that’s available to all of us whenever sin seems more satisfying than righteousness. Joe, believing he’s going to die anyway, immediately accepts.
What Patricia and Joe come to realize, through the course of their adventure together, is that they had inadvertently placed a value on their soul that was far below its actual eternal value. Patricia has her own Faustian bargain with Dad—she’s agreed to make the trip only so she can have the boat in exchange (it later sinks). Joe only took and kept his "very lousy" job because he was habitually willing to sell himself short. Joe’s real sickness, of course, is not a brain cloud but soul sickness.
The clincher in Volcano comes when we see Joe ascending the mountain, on a path that is as crooked as the one he was forced to take every day into his very lousy job. The volcano is symbolic of Joe’s job, in that both threaten the loss of one’s soul. In fact, the company logo appears frequently, each time representing a path to destruction: the path leading up to the factory, the rectal probe that the company makes, the bolt of lightning that sinks the ship, the lava flow down the side of the volcano, the crack in Joe’s apartment, and a constellation. If it isn’t absolutely clear, Joe’s boss is even named Mr. Watori, about as similar to Waponi as you can get without being identical.
But if ubiquitous corporate logos in the early 90s were a sure sign of soul sickness for the main character, then ten years later products became so tyrannical as to actually become the main character, while the lead human actor simply plays a supporting role in making the corporate propaganda seem believable. And this time the corporation isn’t contrived; it’s real.
As Coyote Ugly was to Budweiser Beer, so Cast Away is to the Federal Express Corporation: a two-hour tribute to a product placed so ubiquitously in the film that it’s hard to imagine a single scene in which the advertiser does not have its logo taking up at least thirty percent of the screen. By the film’s end, it is clear that Tom Hanks didn’t actually get the lead role, but instead had a supporting role used to buttress the omnipresence of the godlike FedEx Corporation. In this light, one wonders just how intentional the writer’s double meaning of the phrase "cast away" was meant to be taken, as the film’s cast is literally as far away from the center of the film’s meaning as anything in recent memory.
Hanks plays Chuck (to discard) Noland (No Land), a single white manager epitomizing all that is simultaneously sympathetic and horrible about the world of Dilbert and Homer Simpson. His entire universe is ruled by his company, which allows his personal life only minor intrusions into the demanding flow of daily shipments. At what is set up as a very Norman Rockwell-style family dinner, we are somehow lulled into accepting the bizarre abnormality that Noland is not having dinner with friends and family, but with colleagues from FedEx whose fascinating chitchat revolves around delivery times, personnel crunches, and sorting schedules as though it’s the most meaningful thing since, say, the birth of Christ—sandwiched into which is the only real purpose of the scene, which is to reveal that Noland’s fiancée Kelly has been previously married. By the film’s end, the reasons for Kelly’s past romantic failures are abundantly clear, and we wonder if her name is meant to imply her temporary status as a "Kelly girl." If the Federal Express Corporation is not the lead role in the film, then why is papa FedEx, CEO Fred Smith mentioned by name not once but twice, and actually is in the film playing none other than himself, intoning with godly solemnity how pleased he is at the prodigal-like return of lost sheep Noland?
After giving Kelly an engagement ring box that she never opens, Noland undergoes his updated Robinson Crusoe experience of being cast away, and awakes to find himself all alone on a South Pacific atoll. Thus begins the most potentially meaningful 45 minutes of the film.
Like Robinson Crusoe, Noland is only able to play sole survivor by salvaging the washed up detritus of his culture’s wreckage, which he initially sorts like a dutiful employee, as though tomorrow he’ll be able to deliver these misrouted packages. Finally he begins opening them up—all but one—and he discovers a wealth of intentionally useless but functionally practical tools with which to implement his strategy for survival. A fishnet stocking dress becomes, quite simply, a fishnet. A pair of ice skates becomes an axe and a dentistry tool. A volleyball gets put to even more meaningful use. The only things of immediate uselessness are his two heretofore umbilically attached appendages, his pager and his watch. The only unhelpful FedEx Pak contains a divorce agreement, the significance of which grows as the film’s symbols begin to evolve.
After a day of gathering both his wits and his tools, Noland sets out to make fire, remembering what little he can from Boy Scouts. Like Prometheus, he is both successful and condemned for his achievement, cutting open his hand on a piece of wood he is using. In textual anger but subtextual allegory, Noland picks up the Wilson volleyball and hurls it against a rock.
The incomplete interpretation of this scene is to read the volleyball as evidence of mankind’s need for community, since Noland immediately begins talking to it after painting a face on it. What is actually happening is the classic socio-anthropological view of the "birth of religion" as Noland, coming from an entirely secular culture with no revealed truth available, is forced to create his own deity. In a Nietzschean reversal of the Judeo-Christian story, Man makes god in his own image and with his own hands, which is why the face of Wilson derives from the bloody imprint of Noland’s palm. In keeping with the worldview of a presumably secularized audience, Noland’s initial relationship with his god is extremely casual, fun, and funny to watch. Later in the film, however, when Noland feels he may be losing his mind (as evidenced by his talking to a volleyball), he kicks it out of the cave only to run immediately after it. In a tremendously significant piece of dialog, Noland submits himself to his god by apologizing to it, breaking down in tears, and promising, "Never again."
The role of self-generated dyadic conversation in our species is explored fully by Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), whose theory on the origin of consciousness is itself an unwitting anthropological echo of the Genesis creation story. The proof of Noland’s submission to Wilson the volleygod is revealed in his before-and-after descriptions of his achievements on the island. When he makes fire, Noland exclaims, "Look what I have done!" Finally, when Noland makes it off the island, he shouts triumphantly, "We did it!" The evolution from "I" to "we" in relation to his god is one of the most significant aspects of the film.
Noland, incidentally, is only able to escape the island by rigging half of a truly portable potty (which has blown in from where?) into both a shelter and a sail. Is civilization pure shit? In Joe Versus the Volcano it is. Is this why the port-a-potty is the only thing Noland finds from the outside world in his entire four years? Or is the portion of port-a-potty an oblique and unintended nod to the necessity of a benevolent providence to get the protagonist out of his fix? The answer is neither; it’s a random universe, the script says, and you might as well stick around because statistically, you’re just as likely to get some good stuff with all the bad stuff. My own theory is that the port-a-potty was blown over from Malaysia, where it was leftover construction equipment from the creation of the world’s tallest building, now about to be eclipsed by one being planned for Saudi Arabia.
Noland’s final Old-Man-and-the-Sea moment on the cross, stretched out Christ-like on the raft just after his god abandons him by floating away, is the crucial scene. The tragedy at this moment is that, after all he’s learned about his true self, his true identity, and his plight not only as a marooned man but as a member of a marooned species, is that when he comes to the end of his metaphoric and literal rope in attempting to retrieve Wilson, instead of choosing to follow his god and be saved (the ocean liner is moments away, after all), he opts for mere biological survival by swimming back to his raft. Faith, in other words, is only useful if it can help you live in the physical world.
What Noland returns home to, it turns out, is worse than a slow and torturous death, much less a quick and brief death by drowning after winning a courageous victory over a brute nature that tried to enslave you.
It is in the nature of the return that we see what each film is trying to tell us about modern man’s malaise, and where the solution may lie. The nice thing about Joe Versus the Volcano, for all its retrospective obviousness, is that it plays out its themes of Romeo and Juliet, Robinson Crusoe, and the Odyssey (the three books Joe has stuffed in the desk of his corporate job) with a hopefulness about life, with a confirmation that true love can conquer death, and a desire at the conclusion to get away and stay away from "the things of man."
Joe and Patricia are never shown actually returning to civilization. They are simply shown floating on Joe’s luggage as the moon rises over the ocean, happily embracing each other and awaiting life’s next adventure. But in Cast Away, the main character does return, and in doing so he ruins both the movie and almost completely negates the value of the lessons he’s learned on the island.
Noland’s psychic survival on the island depends on a very biblical trinity of faith, hope, and love. His faith is manifested in the aforementioned Wilson volleyball (a branded product). Noland’s hope is found in the unopened FedEx box (another branded product) with the mysterious enchained wings symbol on it that is the signature of the artist Bettina. Love is symbolized by Noland’s pocketwatch photo of his fiancée (the only non-branded product). But as things turn out, Cast Away reverses the hierarchy of 1 Corinthians 13:13 by making hope the greatest of the three, while faith is temporarily useful but ultimately discardable, and love is decidedly the last and least among these. If it doesn’t have a brand, then it might as well not even exist.
Real love, in fact, is the only thing that truly gets cast away in the film. Noland returns home to discover that Kelly is now married with a daughter of at least two years, suggesting that she either got married or impregnated (or both) only a year after Noland’s disappearance. If love were real, let alone true, then Kelly would have (a) waited (she "knew he was alive") or at least (b) would have, on accepting the news of his "death," honored his memory by finishing her Ph.D. (her already written dissertation was going to be defended on January 12, just three weeks after the plane goes down on Christmas Eve). Instead, she jumps immediately into marriage and procreation with the nearest economically viable guy, making it reasonable to assume that her first failed marriage will not be her last.
And then there’s the strange subplot of the dental drama, in which Kelly’s new husband ends up being the guy who once performed a root canal on Noland, while Noland is busy on the island taking out his own bad tooth with an ice skate. Is true love a toothache, and you’ll feel better if you just perform a self-inflicted non-anesthetized extraction? It’s a jarring contrast not only to Joe Versus the Volcano, in which true love is equated with both sacrifice and redemption (the volcano spits them out to live happily ever after), but also to another fairy tale movie. In the allegorically dead-on Princess Bride, Westley makes a similar return from the presumed dead to an already married Buttercup by saying, "Death can’t stop true love. It can only delay it." Hanks doesn’t get true love, but we’re supposed to believe its good news that he implicitly gets to jump into a relationship with the maker of the of the mysterious FedEx box, who is coincidentally (a) female (b) beautiful and (c) available thanks to her perfectly timed divorce (or break-up, divorce being so passé) from Dick of Dick and Bettina fame.
Ultimately, Cast Away reveals corporate culture’s eerie and pathetic attempt to offer us transcendence. FedEx is family, Chuck Noland is one of the family’s "lost sons," and his return is proof of what a benevolent patriarchy the corporation really is. But because the bottom line of corporate culture is the bottom line of the annual report, we must ultimately get back on the assembly line and keep producing. Otherwise the economy won’t be strong enough to offer us these two-hour reveries as escapes from our otherwise monochromatic lives.
This is why the obvious and screaming question being begged in Cast Away is completely ignored: in the real world, had Noland returned to America, the last thing he would do is jump back on the FedEx org chart, which he seems to do without question. Instead, we get a Noland who reassimilates himself back into the American borg so rapidly that it makes your head spin. His most revealing comment comes just when he should be pouring his guts out to Kelly: "So let me get one thing straight . . . Tennessee has a football team?"
It was FedEx who stranded him on the island, a FedEx package that kept him alive on the island, and a FedEx party that declares, "Tomorrow we’re going to bring you back to life." Death, descent, and resurrection, all brought to you by our corporate sponsor. It’s worth noting that Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, is the only non-actor in the film, justified by the fact that he’s playing himself. If this doesn’t confirm the victory of advertising over art in contemporary culture, then nothing does.
And just what is the ultimate wisdom Hanks’ characters acquire on their respective spiritual sojourns? In Volcano, he learns to stay away from the things of man, psychologically if not always physically. This is a true and valuable realization, on par with the idea of not holding too closely the things of this earth, where moth and rust et cetera.
Yet in Cast Away, Noland’s profoundest confession to a colleague is that he knows what he has to do: "I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?" At first, his "keep breathing" statement seems like a brief glimpse of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, something he learned on the island when all odds were against him. But then you remember that "keep breathing" is the advice your doctor gives you when you’re on the brink of suicide, right before he prescribes massive quantities of mood stabilizers. "Keep breathing" is literally all the audience can bring itself to do at this point in the film, such is the punched-in-the-gut gasping incited by the psychic despair here offered as a prescription for hope.
For Hanks, who was personally involved in the evolution of the Cast Away story line, this is a strange place to evolve to, especially in light of the fact that in his personal life he does seem to have found true love. Every single article on him mentions his deep and abiding love for his wife, Rita Wilson. While Cast Away is trying to make an optimistic statement about perseverance, they have unfortunately replaced true love with the shallow, serial romantic interludes that Hollywood’s real world actors are prone to embracing. What Broyles seems to forget while saving us from a clichéd and predictable ending, is that true love is never predictable or clichéd. If it’s true, it is always nothing short of miraculous, no matter how many times we see it.
Leonard Maltin called Joe Versus the Volcano a "pleasant if pointless fable." He was wrong. It’s a goofy and clunky telling of a very valuable lesson. The true God-figure in Volcano is an unseen and unnamed deity who subverts the Devil’s destructive intentions, instead offering true life and salvation—both from the horrors of everyday life and from pretty near literal hellfire.
Joe’s interaction with this God appears on the pivotal floating-on-the-raft scene, right when he’s just about to go insane from sunstroke, dehydration, etc., when the tropical moon rises and Joe, awestruck, stands on unsteady legs and says, "Dear God whose name I do not know, thank you for my life . . ." and then passes out. So where Chuck Noland on his raft gives up on his volleygod for the sake of raw nature, Joe transcends his very bad situation to nonetheless offer praise to the one true God. With Cast Away, Maltin’s smirk about pleasant pointlessness rings all too true because the story soars to such heights of incredible potential, only to sink back into a quagmire of murky relativism.
Chuck Noland’s saga ultimately amounts to an extended corporate-sponsored vacation for busy executives who need to get in touch with themselves through nature, so that they can come back refreshed and ready to produce even more for the capitalist machine. Twenty percent returns! Keep the stockbrokers happy!
The unintentional message of Cast Away is that monoculture cannot be escaped, but that it’s okay so long as you’ve got a nice company like FedEx employing you. The principle that keeps Noland alive is the same one that keeps corporate culture alive: don’t open the FedEx box. Don’t open Pandora’s box. So long as the evils contained therein don’t get examined, questioned, or discarded, then American culture (and its export, global capitalism at any cost) can continue on its merry and depressing way. It’s enough to make you want your own plane to crash somewhere over the South Pacific.