Thursday, June 17, 2021

Survival Movie Review: "Cast Away"

I sat and re-watched Cast Away a while back. It's not a great movie, but I was bored and it does deal with surviving alone after a disaster. The movie is 20 years old, so I'm not going to worry about spoilers, but I won't give away everything just in case you haven't seen it; the basic plot is that an efficiency expert for a shipping company is flying back to the USA on a company cargo plane that goes down in the Pacific. He ends up on a small island, alone and with no supplies.

The Good
The writers got a lot of things right:

  • The sundial calendar. Having a way to mark the seasons is as old as civilization, and tracking the motion of the sun has been a proven method. In the movie he used a stick to mark the sunlight entering a hole in a cave; placing the stick at the furthest point every day will give you a figure-8 path with the solstices at the ends of the loops and the equinoxes at the point where the loops meet in the center. You can reproduce this with the shadow of a fixed object, like the gnomon of a sundial.
  • Seasonal tides. The reason for tracking the passing of the months was to predict the highest and lowest tides of the year, as well as seasonal changes in weather patterns. This is important for trying to escape from an island, but would also be good information if you're living on a seacoast and foraging the tidal flats for food.
  • Food. Yes, coconuts are edible and yes, the “milk” is a laxative. They did a good job of showing how to get fish from the shallows but not much else in the way of food.
  • Fiber craft. Binding things together is important and the use of strips of bark, woven together to make cordage, was well done.
  • Found” items. Some debris from the plane crash washed ashore and he made good use of most of what he found. It was a good plot device to give him a few pieces of steel to use as tools so he wouldn't have to work with stone implements.
  • First aid. Coral is sharp and he gashes his leg while fishing. The movie portrayed fairly well how much untreated wounds would suck.
  • Isolation. His mental health took a hit from the isolation and the movie did a good job of showing that. Most people are not prepared to be alone for long periods of time; after all, we are social animals. 
The Bad
Not everything was perfect. My wife refuses to watch movies involving wars with me because I point out historical inaccuracies, and I was told to shut up a couple of times during Cast Away because I was talking to the TV too much. Artistic license and dramatic effect won out over common sense several times:

  • The life raft. After escaping a sinking airplane, the main character floats to a small island in an inflatable life raft, which he then basically ignores. Scenes with him trying to collect rain water with leaves and improvised containers seemed ludicrous to me when he had a soft-sided plastic container (the raft) capable of catching and holding rain water. Even if deflated, the raft could be placed in a hole in the ground and used as a liner. The raft in the movie was about 6 foot in diameter and a foot deep. That gives a surface area of 18.85 square feet, so one inch of rain fall would deposit roughly 11.75 gallons of fresh water into the raft*. That's enough water for a week at least. Completely full, it would hold well over 100 gallons!
    *18.85 sq ft = 2714.4 sq inches, for volume multiply by the 1 inch of rain to get 2714.4 cubic inches of water. There are 231 cubic inches in a gallon, so divide 2714.4 by 231 to get 11.75 gallons.
  • Making fire. OK, he's not a Boy Scout and has had no survival training. Using friction as a way to start a fire is slow and tedious, which is why we suggest having more than one way to start a fire in any bag. I keep a small fire-starting bar on my keychain and have matches and a couple of other methods in my go bags.
  • The island. From the few wide shots shown, the island looked to be at least 100 acres in size, maybe a few hundred, but they never showed much beyond where he originally landed. Exploration and learning what resources are available would be high on my list of activities. It was a volcanic island, like most in the Pacific, so there would have been deposits of useful rocks and several other things worth finding. Islands also tend to have a “leeward” side where the weather and waves aren't as rough. Not relocating to a better location wasn't explained. Periodic searches for new flotsam on the shore would be on my list as well.
  • Food. No attempt was made to cultivate food. Finding edible plants and relocating or planting them closer to where you live is more efficient. You can still go out and scavenge for food, but having a known supply frees up time to do other things. Surviving on just fish and coconuts would leave some gaps in the nutrients needed to stay healthy, too.
  • Lack of improvements. Maybe they were trying to emphasize the “desert island” theme, but after having spent a couple of years there, I would have expected some sort of improvement in living quarters, food and water storage, and organization of supplies. Firewood stacked for a rainy day, any form of container better than empty coconuts for keeping water, an outhouse, or maybe a decent shelter to get out of the elements, some kind of improvement of how you're living.

All in all, Cast Away is not a horrible movie. I use shows like this to make me think about how I'd do things given the same setting, with the knowledge that Hollywood has different laws of physics than the real world. Let me know if you've seen this one or if you have a favorite of your own that you'd like to share; I'm open to suggestions for new entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about the usefulness of movies, in general, and survival in particular. Even the series Walking Dead was entertaining and left much to be desired in accuracy. I, too, use them as a way of provoking thought and learning what others think about real life survival scenarios. Some of the gaffs are glaring and border on ridiculous, yet can yield a wealth of motivation to solve the problems better. If and when your see or hear something totally stupid, do the research so you don't make the same mistakes. I liked "The Road" and "The Book of Eli" also and yet found several "thought provoker" moments that made me think them through to a better solution.


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