Chuck Noland is a FedEx systems engineer whose personal and professional life are ruled by the clock. His fast-paced career takes him, often at a moment’s notice, to far-flung locales and away from his girlfriend, Kelly. On one such trip, Chuck’s manic existence abruptly halts when his plane goes down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he becomes stranded on a remote, uninhabited island. He is the only survivor. With no one there to vote him off the island, Chuck makes the best of it. First, he must find a way to meet basic human needs (food, water and shelter), which he accomplishes with the help of various FedEx packages that have washed ashore with him. There is one package with an angel wing logo on it that he does not open. Along with a picture of Kelly, it becomes a symbol of hope and a reason to endure.
Once Chuck’s physical needs are met, his biggest struggle involves his emotional and psychological health. He must resist desperation and not reach the point of cracking up. Daniel Defoe’s 18th Century literary hero, Robinson Crusoe, turned to a Bible and found God in the midst of nothingness. Chuck Noland befriends a volleyball. Fate finally offers Chuck a chance to escape the island on a raft. After a heroic struggle, he is saved and brought home. It’s an ironic twist that Chuck’s problem-solving background helps him survive being a castaway while the skills learned as a castaway help him adapt to a new life in civilization.
positive elements: In the throes of a desperate situation with no end in sight, Chuck manages to maintain a sense of hope during his four years on the island. He shows amazing perseverance, whether trying to open coconuts or start a fire with sticks. One of the crewmen on the doomed jet puts himself at risk by heroically assisting Chuck as the plane is going down. Chuck comes to understand that his former outlook on life has cost him the things that are most important (“I should have never gotten on that plane” he tells Kelly). A sense of personal and professional responsibility is evident in Chuck, even after he’s marooned (he sorts and respects the beached parcels for days before opening any). In a touching scene, he looks at the ID of one of the dead crewmen who washed ashore just prior to burying him and realizes that he didn’t even know his friend’s real name—a testimony to the tyranny of the urgent and how busyness can distract us from relating to the people close to us at a deeper level.
Upon returning home from his ordeal, Chuck apologizes to others for not being there for them during their own recent trials. He is also very empathetic to a co-worker who has since lost his wife to cancer (in contrast to being awkwardly supportive years before). In the end, Chuck and Kelly both make moral, honorable decisions about their future relationship. Reflecting on “fate’s” provision, Chuck concludes that we must always maintain hope because we never know what the tide might bring in next. What humor exists is witty and clean.
spiritual content: Not much. The symbol of angel’s wings on a package come to give him hope, but the story never suggests that it has anything to do with God. Chuck also refers to a feeling “like a warm blanket” that came over him in a moment of ultimate despair that he credits with giving him the strength to carry on. Conspicuous by its absence is any prayer or religious reflection by Chuck when laying his dead colleague to rest.
sexual content: It is implied that the unmarried Chuck and Kelly live together. There’s also a brief indication that a man and woman we learn very little about are having an adulterous relationship.
violent content: The plane crash is rather intense. The handful of men onboard the cargo plane are tossed about violently as it plummets into the ocean. One is badly bloodied during the descent. While marooned, Chuck is battered and bloodied as well, including cuts on his feet, a deep gash in his leg and a penetrating wound to his hand.
crude or profane language: Several exclamatory uses of God’s name, a few mild profanities and one s-word.
drug and alcohol content: Champagne is consumed at a party. Wine is served at dinner and prior to a flight.
other negative elements: Having been marooned on an island for four years, Hank’s character runs out of clothes, forcing him into a loincloth (audiences see a little more of him than they might like, but his exposure isn’t indecent or sexualized). It is implied that Chuck attempted suicide once during his long isolation. Chuck discovers and attempts to bury a pale, bloated corpse, which could be disturbing to some viewers. Although not graphic or gratuitous, the filmmakers show Chuck relieving himself (twice) on the island.
conclusion: The combination of Tom Hank’s popularity and the phenomenal success of the TV series Survivor makes Cast Away a sure winner at the box office. It is likely that families will be tempted to take it in. Discerning, pro-active parents can turn this to their advantage.
First, the core message of this film is redeeming: Never give up hope. We know from scripture and from experience that many circumstances that seem hopeless today are the very things that empower us to succeed later on. There are many levels of opportunity for family discussion about the value of hope and looking to the future with anticipation of the great adventure God has planned for us.
Second, the story suggests that Chuck’s near death and isolated struggle leads him to an epiphany of what is truly important. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t reveal what those important things are. Did he immediately go and reconcile himself with his family, friends or even enemies? Did he become a philanthropist working in a Dominican Republic orphanage? No, rather he goes on an existential search for self that remains ambiguous within the context of the film. It does, however, offer families an opportunity to discuss what they might have done in his place (“Chuck got a second chance, what does he do with it?”).
Finally, although the movie does not acknowledge God’s hand in our lives, we know that “fate” is in fact ordained of God. If you believe God exists and cares about us, the struggles of loneliness, heartbreak, desperation, isolation and despair serve a purpose.
Here are some questions to consider should you choose to see Cast Away with your teens. [SPOILER WARNING: These discussion points necessitate revealing key plot twists in this story.] What was the nature of Chuck and Kelly’s relationship during the first part of the story? How does that compare to the biblical principle of love and marriage? What was preventing them from making a lifetime marital commitment to one another? What does that suggest about the nature of transient relationships and divorce? What were Chuck’s personal priorities before being a castaway? How did those priorities change? Chuck and Kelly finally meet after his return; they express their love for one another, but go their separate ways. Did they make the right decision? How might that relate to your future relationships? What does the scene at the Texas crossroads suggest about Chuck’s future? Is it possible that “fate” was steering him clear of marriage to Kelly? Might similar intervention be happening in your life? How do/will you know? Chuck would have never chosen to take on his ordeal, yet the resulting changes in his character suggest that it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him. Does that concept relate to your personal life in any way?