Lockdown Looking Glass: Revisiting Cast Away while stranded in isolation

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In the second article in our series, Lockdown Looking Glass, we’ll be watching Cast Away. Grab your new-found quarantine object friends as we discuss its renewed relevance.

Cast Away centres on a perfectly paradoxical plot device. Chuck Noland (played by Hollywood Everyman Tom Hanks) is a time-obsessed efficiency expert for FedEx. Overwhelmed by work and constant delivery deadlines, Noland leaves behind his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) to board the fateful plane which plunges him into the Pacific Ocean.

After a horrendous crash, we are swept out to sea along with Chuck, washing up on a small deserted island. Amid the haunting quietness of the ocean, and the relentless forces of nature, we witness human survival in its highest and lowest forms. Aspects of human survival that were once comforting, now become bleak reminders of an existence that was so abruptly disrupted. For Chuck, he must now navigate the practical and psychological struggles of surviving on a deserted island.

There is something quietly alluring about the “stuck on a desert island” scenario. Much like the idea of a pandemic, it’s a scenario that has plagued the hypothetic public consciousness for years. Whether it’s the hypothetical daydream, the aggressive intensity of DofE, or any episode of a Bear Grylls’ survival show, concepts of independent survival in nature dominate popular culture. In quarantine especially, similar portrayals of loneliness and stoic independence have run wild amid the masses.

Masculinity also appears to be an inherent part of the desert island trope, which purposefully attempts to re-emphasise the age-old stereotypes and expectations of masculinity. We see Hanks reason with loneliness and survival, as he morphs into an ultimate survivor, starring in the classic fight of man versus nature.

The film is at its most raw and brilliant in its exploration of trauma, and coping mechanisms surrounding loneliness and abandonment. As Noland regresses into a hermit-like shell of his former self, language and the ability to express takes on a warped significance. Chuck’s limited speech becomes oddly jarring, as we come to recognise the emotional scars that his isolation has caused. It is only upon the creation of Wilson, a washed-up volleyball with a face painted in blood, that we see a sense of emotional rehabilitation, as Chuck clings to the small essence of expression and companionship he has.

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The ability to express and document existence is one which also takes on new meaning in quarantine. As exemplified by the renaissance-like cultural explosion of think-pieces and testimonial-based journalism, expression is often the bedrock of human survival. The ability to express and record events is a proof of existence, and therefore survival, and thus naturally finds a place in both quarantine, and in attempts to survive against the odds.

Despite these achievements in exploring the most poignant subtleties revolving around survival, there is a profound sense of disappointment upon Chuck’s return to normalcy, reflected both in hiss transitions and in the film’s inability to reach a clear, and precise resolution.

Once Chuck is saved, he wears the face of a man perpetually lost, stuck in between two worlds. There was the world of the island, with each day melting into one, as emphasised by lapses in time, and the slow fades of each scene on the island. And now, there is the quick-paced, rush of normality, as Chuck is thrown back into his previous anxious time-obsessive past self.

As we witness his rehabilitation, we feel disgust as he is greeted by an overwhelming gluttonous buffet of food. This sight is so foreign to us as the audience, who witnessed the pain-staking human labour endured to even catch crab to eat, now seen nonchalantly placed on the buffet table for easy consumption.

It’s moments like this which highlight his profound disappointment, as Chuck’s alienation is ironically emphasised by his experiences on the island. As we ever so slowly creep towards the end of lockdown, there is an equal sense of excitement and disappointment in what we expect on the other side. Much like Cast Away, there is an expectation of resolution and relief, like flood gates suddenly opening upon us.

And yet, this relief fails to materialise. We are left with recurrent images of uncertainty, as Chuck finds himself at both a physical and mental crossroads, unsure of what to do or who to be in the aftermath of his survival. It is likely that we too will encounter these questions after lockdown ends, with seemingly simple former behaviours now over-analysed in our post-quarantine state. However, what is certain, both in Cast Away and in quarantine, is that our experiences will shape our lives for years to come.

No man is an island; unless of course, you’re Tom Hanks. Cast Away is available to rent on Amazon


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Hope Talbot

TV, film and culture writer interested in all things visual. Be it the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, the films of Wes Anderson and Studio Ghibli, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's beautiful face, I'll write about.