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Major spoilers ahead. Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is a FedEx systems engineer, whose job is to improve productivity for the worldwide company’s delivery service. He lives and dies by the clock, traveling around the globe to ensure standards are being met. During Christmas, he chooses to leave his fiancé Kelly (Helen Hunt) and travel to Malaysia, promising her that he’ll be right back. But a violent storm sends his plane into the Pacific Ocean and instead of being home with his future wife, spends the next four years alone on an island trying to survive. He does, yet it accomplishing much more.
Since Noland was traveling on a FedEx cargo plane, when it crashed, many of the crates within were dislodged from their moorings and their contents strewn about the sea. A few boxes washed up on the same shore as Chuck. He finds ways to use many of these items, including a pair of ice skates as an axe and the frill on a dress as fish netting. One box, when opened, contains a new volleyball, to which Noland initially has no interest of course, but after he cuts his hand while trying to make fire, grabs the ball and throws it violently. A bit later, when he recovers the ball, he discovers that the dried bloody palm print he made on the surface resembles a face with spiked hair. He draws a pair of eyes and a mouth in the red and sets the ball on stump. Soon after, he gives the ball a name and begins to talk with the rudimentary homunculus.
Wilson is, of course, mute, but as time passes, Chuck’s interaction with the ball includes what appears to be actual exchanges, with pauses as if Wilson is indeed responding to Noland. I’ve already written about a striking moment when this perceived dialog carried great impact in the story. It also provides significance to this moment as well.
After four years together, with the volleyball serving as a ‘vocal’ opposition, essentially being the voice in Noland’s head that offers critical assessment and alternative options, Noland has finally got a workable plan to possibly escape the island. After much debating and even some arguing, he (and Wilson for all intents and purposes) build a raft and stock it with enough provision to hopefully last until they reach a shipping lane and can be spotted.
Adrift at sea, on their first night away from the island, Chuck hears a bellow just before a whale surfaces, exhaling and then submerging. It then immediately appears on the other side of the raft, turns on its side and opens an eye up to Noland before slipping into the ebony water, quite literally disappearing, the water undisturbed by its motion. Watching it repeatedly, it’s clear the whale does in fact vanish, and we are meant to make our own assumption about its existence. This could be a poor visual effect, but knowing director Robert Zemeckis, this seems highly unlikely and the whale is something else entirely. I propose the whale is in fact, not there, but rather a narrative device to propel Noland forward.
Unseen but heard, the ‘whale’ makes two other appearances. One described below, and again just before the tanker arrives, its bellow like the horn of the great boat and the spray of its blowhole waking Noland in time to be spotted. Rich with symbolism, it’s stirring when the beast eyes Chuck and we get a sense that Chuck is looking into something deeper. There is a comfort in the moment, something that is echoed in Nolan’s calm acceptance of the creature, a reminder of how grand and big life truly is (and oddly reminiscent of another moment with Hanks on a raft in the equally good Joe Versus the Volcano). In truth, the whale has greater purpose and represents the final shift in Noland’s incredible transformation. He is ready to leave behind the island, but to be free of who he once was, there is one final sacrifice to be made. The whale is the harbinger of this moment.
Time passes and one day, Chuck encounters swells and harsh weather that batter the raft, eventually stripping it of the makeshift plastic sail. The loosely bound float barely stays together and the next morning, Chuck, who is passed out from exhaustion, malnutrition, and dehydration is awakened by the unseen whale’s blowhole spray, or we are meant to believe so. Jerked away, Chuck immediately notices that Wilson, who had been tied to a mount, is missing. In desperation, Chuck begins calling out the volleyball’s name and in the calm rolling waters, not far from the raft, sees the ball bobbing on the surface.
In a panic, he dives into the water, but the current is strong and separating them fast. Chuck grabs a line of woven tree bark fastened into a rope to secure himself to the raft as he attempts to swim to Wilson. But it’s too late. Steadily, the water pulls Wilson away and Chuck is forced to make a choice. He lets go of the rope, seen streaming away as the raft is drawn by the current, while Wilson slips farther out of reach. For a moment, Chuck is suspended between the two and it is here where we attach the greatest symbolism to what Wilson really is and why this scene is so crucial.
Let’s be clear. Wilson is Chuck. That’s most important. As mentioned above, the volleyball has always been the ‘voice’ opposite or at least in question of whatever Chuck is thinking or saying. He is Chuck’s inner voice, the doubt and skepticism given body and form for Chuck to verbally spare with. He is a plot device designed so the audience can hear the actor’s voice without that character simply rambling to himself. What’s really well done, and wonderfully subtle is how the volleyball is a reflection of Noland throughout. When discovered, Wilson is trapped in a carton, pale and fat with air, useless to Chuck, just like Chuck is trapped in a life he can’t escape, pale and overweight. When Noland strips the packing box off of Wilson, after imprinting it with the bloody hand (transferring himself by blood-ties to the totem), the ball is now free and suddenly has use. This is timed with Chuck making fire and shifting from ‘useless’ on the island to master of all he surveys. As the film skips ahead, we see a dramatic transformation in Chuck. He’s trim and lean. He’s also tanned, his leathery skin thick and dark from years of exposure. His hair, once short and black is now long and sun-damaged to bright blond. But he’s not alone. Wilson too has changed. Punctured, the ball has lost a lot of its girth. The once white skin is now leathery tan and in the hole where the ball burst, stands a thick patch of dry yellow reeds looking like long blond hair. Wilson is Chuck.
Back on the water, the storms have left Noland with nearly nothing. The island has done its job, taking four years to change the man who, when arrived, was, ironically, lost, committed to the wrong things, soft, taking for granted the great treasure of his life. Stripped now of almost everything, his first and only hope for surviving–Kelly–is all he really has and to get her back, he must shed the last remaining shadow of his old self: Wilson. The ‘whale’, who we recall, is unseen, now beckons Noland to face that choice. That is the sea’s final toll on Chuck. Letting the volleyball go is the last step in returning Chuck “No-land” Noland to home. Chuck both physically and metaphorically says goodbye to the man he once was. As he lays upon the tinders of his makeshift raft weeping in sorrow, he repeats that he is sorry. At last, Chuck understands.
Not long after, devoid of the burdens and baggage of his past, the guilt and shame of his mistakes, the shell of a new Chuck Noland lies floating on a gentle sea with hope the only thing left to cling to. The ‘whale’, one last time, still unseen, awakens him once more, signaling him to the passing tanker and permanent rescue. He is ready. Now it’s up to Chuck.