I have to confess up front that I am one of the few people who did not in the least admire Forrest Gump, so I was looking forward to the reteaming of star Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis with the same degree of enthusiasm usually reserved for a festival of Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis films. Surprisingly, Cast Away — while decidedly overlong and brazenly manipulative — turned out to be a good, solid, entertaining film. Faced with the publicity gimmick of a star who alters himself physically for a role (Hanks put on and then shed a reported 60 pounds for the film), one had every right to expect the worst. And while the gimmick only helps the film plod through its weakest and most cliched concept — overly civilized man coming to terms with himself by learning primitive self-reliance — it’s a pleasure to report that Hanks’ performance is probably the most genuine and genuinely unaffected one of his career. Playing Federal Express executive Chuck Noland, Hanks moves from being a thoughtless –even slightly offensive — business go-getter who lives by the clock and obsesses over the idea of deliveries being precisely on time to a thoughtful, well-rounded human being. The metamorphosis comes when he becomes, essentially, a package that is “delivered” about four years late, thanks to a plane crash. It’s a complex, understated, tricky characterization that relies only slightly on Hanks’ usual little-boy charm shtick, not in the least because he spends so much of the film alone or in “conversation” with a volley ball he uses as a kind of imaginary playmate (which sounds ridiculous, but somehow works). Though the entire film is shamelessly crafted as a high-concept crowd pleaser, two things set Cast Away apart. In the first place, making Chuck Noland the ultimate modern man (one who carries out his life via pagers and cell phones and time tables to an utterly dehumanizing degree) gives what is otherwise a pretty hoary premise an edge and a relevance — especially owing to the fact that the film is at pains to make a statement about how the actions of other people significantly impact our lives, and how our actions impact theirs. This may not be the most revelatory message in the world, but it’s one that seems particularly trenchant in a society that threatens to become less and less human by the very medium that ought to make it more so: communication. In the second place, the film boldly offers no easy answers, but leaves the viewer with an ending that is literally at a crossroads, affording Hanks — and the viewer — options and possibilities, but no direct answers. Technically, Cast Away is very nearly flawless. Even when a number of the film’s key moments are too deliberately big and too transparently manipulative, they’re accomplished with the utmost care and craftsmanship. If nothing else, Zemeckis deserves praise for staging perhaps the most effective plane-crash sequence ever — and for having the wisdom and daring to eschew background scoring during the film’s desert island sequences, relying solely on natural sound and Hanks’ abilities to hold the film together. Make no mistake, Cast Away isn’t high art, but it’s brilliantly crafted, well-meaning filmmaking and audiences looking for such things are likely to actually get better than they bargained for.