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.
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.