Binaries of the Mind: The Relationship between Humans and Nature in Cast Away, by Darrell Tuffs
Hollywood mainstream cinema has often been criticized for the ways in which nature and the environment is presented within its productions. Animated films such as Happy Feet (2006), or Disneynature’s Bears (2014) provide us with a largely dramatized and playfully anthropomorphic tone within their methods of capturing nature and the natural environment. Through these fluffy and entertaining portraits of disguised human subjectivity, we are forced to mentally break down boundaries between the living and the natural world. However, this break is not achieved in the films by removing binaries, but rather, by dismantling the natural world, only to build it back up in ways that suit our own human perception of it.
Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) goes some way to repairing Hollywood’s tonal misinterpretation towards the power and majesty of nature. The film creates an uncanny tone of intertwined distance. It suggests a need or want within the human characters in the film to be closer to nature, yet highlights a critical sense of modernity to reject or fear nature as uncontrollable or empty.
While viewing Cast Away, we meet Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a fast-talking FedEx system engineer who holds a deep obsession with rhythmical timekeeping. During the film, Noland becomes the lone survivor of a plane crash over the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, the ocean washes up Chuck, before drifting him to an uninhabited island. Chuck is then, over time, slowly deconstructed as a product of human modernity by the island. The film’s cultural perception of the island changes over its duration.
At first, we are introduced to the island as a place of isolation and loneliness, a scary untamed place in which surviving is living. During the first half of the film, Chuck is often the core focus of every frames attention. For example, the first moments of Chuck on the island are presented within many point-of-view shots, as well as a select amount of wide-angle shots, which find Chuck at their centre. Chuck starts his time on the island from within notable boundaries between him and his surroundings. His general posture and body language reflect a stubborn sense of clumsiness and awkwardness towards his environment. Chuck, at first, takes much comfort in a bright orange plastic lifeboat. He shelters from the island by creating a structure made from the lifeboat’s plastic, creating a materialistic boundary which separates the pureness of the earth, trees and leaves from the artificially man made plastic of Chuck’s cocooning shelter.
Surrounded by the plastic lifeboat, Chuck has laid out a clear boundary of separation between himself as a human, and the bordering space occupied by what he currently views as alien, as other, that is, the natural environment. But instead of Chuck manipulating the natural space around him in order to survive, a sense of intersectionality must and does take place between him and nature. Chuck must shift his temporal viewpoint to exist within and beside nature, rather than apart from it. His physical body and mental temperament shift and adapt in order to intersect himself fully within the island. Chuck slowly begins to shed his human clothes, gains a considerable amount of muscle, and begins to wear and use natural materials as extensions of his own bodily self.
This intersectionality starts to become apparent later in the film, best expressed visually during the scene in which Chuck begins to open drifting FedEx packages that have been washed up on the island. These packages contain commodities of human consumption – some videotapes, a volleyball, a pair of ice skates, and some cardboard, all of which is extracted by Chuck from opening the packages. Found within the importance of Chuck gaining these items is the fact that, to him, they are no longer human commodities, but are now raw tools and materials for living. Chuck can now intersect the sharp blades of the ice skates with natural sticks to create spears. The cardboard is mixed with dirt from the earth and leaves from trees in order to create bedding, and the plastic orange lifeboat is now propped-up by logs in order to provide a stronger, more suitable living structure. Chuck does not take these manufactured human creations and use them to battle nature. He instead mixes them within his natural surroundings in order to break down the boundaries created in the first half of the film. Chuck creates useful tools forged from a hybrid of both human industrialism/modernity, and natural material from the earth itself.
During one significant scene in the film, Chuck desperately attempts to create fire for warmth. This scene could easily be compared to a later scene in the film, which finds Chuck, now away from the island, click a manmade plastic lighter, resulting in the immediate creation of fire. The contrasting scenes highlight two separate modes of fire. One has been tamed, packaged, and sold for human usage; the other is unpredictable, and must be painstakingly created using effort, knowledge, and energy in order to draw fire from the earth. Within the fire making scene, we are shown that neither fire or the natural world work exclusively for human consumption. We see the powers of nature to live as a product of the world untamed by human hands or subjectivity. Chuck’s powers are reduced. He can no longer simply strike a convenient plastic button, but must now work within nature to naturally draw fire.
A major point of interest to note while viewing Cast Away is its almost unnoticeably subtle use of CGI. During one scene towards the end of the film, Chuck sits calmly waiting for the wind to change direction. Found within the background of this scene are a few CGI trees, of which, are animated by the filmmakers to slowly blow in the distance.
Computer graphics are also used within the film to create the magnitude of giant waves, as well as to construct Chuck’s majestic viewpoint while standing at the top of the islands tallest peak. For a film that connects humans to nature so profoundly, we are still, all be it subtly in the background, given very humanistic constructions of nature, using human computer technology and artistry. For Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, “such efforts demonstrate a continued existence of a pervasive mental construct of what the island ought to be for it to function in fantasies of island (non)colonization – an image that does not exist in reality but that the filmmakers understand enough to create and project onto the film and screen. (Weaver-Hightower, p.309) In the same way that the human imagined line between human resources and natural materials is blurred within the film, so too is the one between computer imagery and raw imagery of the natural environment.
Chuck’s gradual transformation highlights that, as humans, we hold something very primal and pure within us, something that is never more at home than in nature. The reasoning behind Chuck’s starting default position of fearing the island may be found within the modern restrictions of his previous life, surrounded by quickly moving work operations, tightly budgeted schedules, and the ever continuing performances of other human beings. Compared to this, the chaotic and ever changing spiritual rhythms of Chuck’s island life seem, at first, alien and unnatural to him.
The island holds no cultural significations of the human image, no reminders of the ‘I’. That is, not apart from a small photo of Chuck’s wife, and a volleyball, of which, Chuck creates a human face upon by using his own blood. Both of these items provide a great deal of comfort for Chuck. He stores within them a large degree of human identity, as well as self-worth. Victor Li points out in his reading of the film that, “Noland manages to turn survival into self-renewal; his isolation enables his progress to self-reliance and self-understanding” (Li, 2010). In other words, the island deconstructs Chuck. With no external sources of human media or cultural roles, he is no longer able to socially perform what we think of as human behaviours, which means that, those behaviours are in no way a fixed human entity. An ‘animal’ evolutionary survival instinct takes over from the social implications of everyday modern life. As Adrian Ivakhiv highlights, “modern visuality provides us with a way of knowing the world and a form of power over it, a power that tends to shape the world in its image” (Ivakhiv, 2013, p.79). Chuck attempts to maintain his human identity by using human signifiers for comfort, but alas, no longer connected spiritually or emotionally to a modern sense of human visuality, Chuck, instead, returns to a core animal state of being ‘at one’ with nature.
Upon leaving the island towards the end of the film, Chuck glances back onto its slowly fading shores one last time. Chuck will miss the island as a home, or as a shelter. The island has maintained Chuck’s life for the past four years, providing to him the core essentials of maintaining the survival of living creatures. For this, Chuck seems to be leaving a raw part of himself on the island, before heading back toward the sometimes imprisoning nature of imposed human social boundaries. Cast Away often presents the modern and natural world as two separate entities, yet it’s only when a character from one of these worlds crosses over the line that we begin to understand that, the line may have never been there to begin with.
Li, V. (2010) “Globalization’s Robinsonade: Cast Away and neo-liberal subject formation”, in Rerouting the Postcolonial Directions for the New Millennium, New York: Routledge.
Ivakhiv, A. (2013) “The Geomorphology of the Visible”, in Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Weaver-Hightower, R. “Cast Away and Survivor: The Castaway and the Rebirth of Empire”, Available online, http://wisecampus.com/uploads/notescans/Weaver-Hightower.pdf (Accessed: October 23rd, 2015)