Simply put, screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. has fashioned a kind of Daniel Defoe/Robinson Crusoe-like tale for the new millennium with Cast Away. Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, an obsessive and driven FedEx systems engineer who crash-lands near a deserted Pacific island, where he is forced to live in solitude for four years. Not so simple is what Hanks, Broyles, director Robert Zemeckis and their key collaborators have accomplished in the big-screen rendition of a story Hanks hatched with Broyles when they worked together on Apollo 13. Cast Away is thoroughly entertaining and skillfully rendered; managing to avoid clich, the filmmakers have taken a neat high-concept "what-if" and turned it into a wholly believable and immersive experience.

The filmmakers also raise the emotional quotient with a romantic subplot involving Chuck and girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), who is slowly losing patience with Chuck's manic focus on moving FedEx packages more quickly and efficiently around the globe. It should be stated immediately, just for the record, that FedEx--the company and brand--sets something of a record for being so ubiquitous throughout the film, even when Chuck is a lone castaway on a desert island. At least Chuck doesn't float ashore from the crashed plane gripping a FedEx box, but he and we are not allowed to forget FedEx even as he lives the castaway's solitary life beyond civilization.

Hanks gets very high points and should cop an Oscar nomination for his performance as a dedicated company man, first seen drilling Russian employees and habitually clock-watching as he tries to get FedEx's Moscow depot up to snuff before heading back to capture some of the winter holidays in his home base of Memphis with Kelly. In keeping with the film's time motif, Kelly gives Chuck his Christmas present--a pocket-watch family heirloom--before he takes off yet again on another FedEx flight to a distant locale. This time, over the Pacific, the plane runs into big trouble over the ocean and crashes. The scenes of the plane faltering are among the scariest ever committed to celluloid. Fearful flyers on the mend would be best advised to stay away from Cast Away.

On the island, Chuck discovers not just that he's all alone, but that he has no resources other than what the trees, sand and caves provide. Unexpectedly, he gets a wee bit of help from the elements when some plane debris is washed ashore, but he must learn to catch fish, build a fire, grab cherished rainwater and sustain himself in total solitude. So much for clock-watching and deadlines.

Zemeckis, who previously teamed with Hanks on the blockbuster Forrest Gump and knocked out the spectacular What Lies Beneath during the Cast Away hiatus, turns what could have been tedious scenes, covering the four exiled years, into little epiphanies. Zemeckis makes heightened drama out of moments like Chuck's learning to create fire, tending to an infected tooth, trying to signal far-off boats and turning objects into companions as a way of fighting loneliness (and getting a little dialogue going!). Chuck's efforts to meet his food needs prior to learning to make fire deliciously recall the icky "Survivor" moments that had TV audiences and the survivors themselves all delivering a communal "yuck!"

Hanks does his best work as the largely mute islander who must emote more by gesture and expression than words. Much has been reported about his weight loss--and the production's nearly one-year hiatus--in order to make his evolution from puffy executive to lean and muscular castaway more convincing. The regime, like the strategy, paid off.

As befits a big production, Cast Away's action scenes are lavishly mounted. Forget location shooting that took the film to places like Moscow, the remote Fiji islands, Texas and Memphis. Whether above water at its far-flung locales or under water as Chuck extricates himself from the crashed plane, this thrilling adventure, with tiny dollops of romance and spiritualism, always looks breathtaking. Also strong on surprises, the film handles Chuck's rescue with unexpected imagination and effectiveness. A twist near the end has Chuck back in Memphis, where he meets the now-married Kelly, who believed like the others that Chuck died with his colleagues.

Also not unusual in so big a production, the filmmakers did some down-to-the-wire tinkering. Cast Away's hopeful ending suggests some hand-wringing over how to resolve the Chuck/Kelly dilemma. But the producers maintain that the last minute reshoots involved small, visual enhancements of earlier scenes. Whatever the retouches, audiences will welcome this final package. Like FedEx, Cast Away successfully delivers the goods.

--Doris Toumarkine