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  • Rukmini Ravishankar

Cast Away is a Movie About Time

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

I never thought I could watch Cast Away. This film and 127 Hours among others were films that I had sworn out of my life because I was terrified of their premises. Being stuck alone in an island with no supplies and being trapped between a literal rock and a hard place to the point where I would have to amputate my own leg are things that scare me out of my wits. I still haven’t watched 127 Hours. God help me when the time comes.

Cast Away move poster minimal

I recently signed up for a course on Coursera, titled Understanding Memory, Explaining the Psychology of Memory through Movies conducted by a professor from Wesleyan. Two of the films the professor had listed as part of the course were Memento and Cast Away. So, yesterday, I braced myself and hit play with my finger on the volume control for when it gets scarily loud – which it did, a lot. But as the film drew to an end, I was ecstatic that I had spent 2 hours and 23 minutes of my life this way. And that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about at the end of it – time.

Cast Away Tom Hanks Chuck Noland sees the island

You know how a problem is exacerbated by the nature of the person who is going through it? Like when a man who is obsessed with being prepared for the worst at all times suddenly finds himself stuck in a cabin under the ground, having been put there by a psychopathic woman who kidnaps kids for a living (read: Prisoners)? Cast Away is a similar story. We see Chuck Noland right in the beginning, counselling FedEx employees and teaching them how important time is. The rate at which he talks is itself a signal at his obsession with time management. And that only makes it worse when he has to spend a seemingly endless amount of time re-evolving. A fresh start usually entails a new job or moving to a new country or developing new habits. It hardly ever means starting all the way at the beginning of the evolution of mankind – learning to use rocks to cut coconuts, learning to build a fire, fashioning footwear with clothes, etc.

Cast Away Tom Hanks Chuck Noland talks to FedEx employees

Everything I know about the Theory of Relativity comes from watching Interstellar. But I like to think there’s a psychological theory of relativity according to which time moves at a rate that’s inversely proportional to your quantifiable mood. Okay, trying to make it sound technical is not working. What I mean is, the better you feel, the faster time moves and the worse you feel, the slower it is. That’s why my period seems to last an eternity… Anyway… Cast Away shows this quite nicely. The happiest scene in the film is the Christmas dinner party that Chuck has with his partner and family. But we remember little about it. That is because the shots were quick and the details, forgettable. We remember the scene as a whole, but each individual moment kind of got lost in the whole.

Cast Away Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt Chuck Noland and Kelly Frears celebrate Christas with family

Conversely, every single agonising moment that Chuck spends trying to create fire, we remember. Every moment Chuck spends trying to find Wilson, we remember. Every moment Chuck spends trying to sail back towards civilisation, the impact of each and every wave, we remember. When he went up the cliff and looked down, the waves were slow, the height was nausea-inducing, even for the audience. And we remember all of it. Come to think of it, it’s like that for most of us. We don’t remember the happiness as much as we remember the agony and the angst. Because time seems to slow down when we want it to move faster.

Cast AwayTom Hanks Chuck Noland looks down froma cliff top

It’s a bit counter-intuitive to think this way, because you’d think that a person who values time would also value each moment in his life and live it to the fullest. But Chuck only thinks about using time for work, not for something that’s just as nourishing and enriching, like time spent with family.


Time for a random anecdote: My mother walked in right at the part where Chuck tries to break a coconut for the first time and said “Whoa, a white man’s breaking a coconut”, except in Tamizh and in a completely non-racist way. Then when he finally succeeds and loses all the water in there she gasped and went, “Oh god, I can’t watch this, it’s too heart-breaking” and then walked away. Now I don’t know whether that comment came from a place of empathy for the character or from the sheer amount of coconuts we use in our cuisine, but it was funny all the same. And if I didn’t want to include this little titbit in this piece, I would’ve forgotten all about it.

Cast Away Tom Hanks Chuck Noland fails to escape on his lifeboat

I remember being immersed in the film’s first half to such an extent that I truly felt his pain on the island, and I had mild panic attacks with the impact of each thing that happens there. So, when the “Four Years Later” card was displayed, I swore in incredulity. The key here is just how detailed the first half of the film was. We lived each moment with him and that made us empathise with him over the fact that he went through that misery for four years.


After his return to civilisation, Chuck spends some time looking at all these advanced objects that he didn’t have on the island. He lights a fire with a click of a finger, produces a knife with one little swiping action, all of which goes to show just how much time he had wasted on the island. We can almost feel him thinking, “if only…” as he sees his old pocket knife for the first time in so many years.

Cast Away Tom Hanks Chuck Noland sees the lighter after he comes back

So, having watched all those struggles, understanding his pain and empathising with him, taking an oath that I’d always be prepared for the worst, I still thought that the film was about one thing more than anything else – time. And the one thing from this film that I’ll take back with me was when Chuck says “Tomorrow, the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

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