Wilson the Volleyball, Reconsidered

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 23 2001 11:57 PM

Wilson the Volleyball, Reconsidered

103000_103228_010323_wilson

If Tom Hanks walks away with the Oscar for Best Actor on Sunday night, he will of course be the first actor in Hollywood history to win the award for a film in which his chief co-star was a volleyball. Hanks has been predictably acclaimed for his portrait of a man in extremis, coming to grips with a kind of profound solitude that stands in sharp contrast to his frenzied life as a manager for FedEx. Now, Hanks' performance is certainly impressive. But what's really important about Cast Away is not what it has to say about the individual. It's what it has to say about the social.

Advertisement

At first glance, Wilson seems to be merely a kind of foil for Hanks. He needs something to break the silence, some illusion that he isn't truly alone, so he paints a face on the volleyball and suddenly has a ready-made audience for his ramblings. Hanks needs Wilson, in this reading, because he simply needs someone to listen.

In fact, though, something far more interesting is going on, but it's hard to see until the last scene between Hanks and Wilson when Hanks falls asleep while on a raft at sea and Wilson is carried off by the waves. Hanks dives into the water and tries to swim after his friend but doesn't have the strength to save him. As Hanks watches the volleyball drift out of sight, he yells, "I'm sorry, Wilson! I'm sorry!" Now, that's a pretty curious thing to yell (even by the admittedly weird standards of conversations with volleyballs). It suggests that Hanks is not anguished by the fact that he's alone again, as you'd think he would be if Wilson was just his solitude-shattering companion. Instead, Hanks is anguished by the fact that he's let Wilson down, that he hasn't been able to help Wilson when Wilson needed him.

The point, I think, is that Wilson is important to Hanks not as someone who will listen to him or pay attention to him (however silently). Wilson is important to Hanks as someone who relies on him, who, in some sense, needs him. The crucial thing you lose when you fall out of society, Cast Away seems to say, is not conversation or attention. The crucial thing you lose is the chance to be needed. Hanks has to create Wilson out of that volleyball not because he needs someone to talk to but because he has to be of use to someone else. The abyss that yawns in front of him when he lands on that island--and that Wilson helps him avoid--is not the abyss of existential despair, exactly. It's something much simpler but much darker: the abyss of irrelevance.

 

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.