Ever since Robert De Niro packed on 50+ pounds to play the lead in Raging Bull, the feat of personal transformation has served as a forbidding but enticing extreme for actors, reinforced by media attention courting the admiration of the moviegoing public. The effect can be dubious: Audiences watching, say, Jared Leto in Requiem For A Dream may end up focusing less on the film than on the upsetting effects the role is said to have had on his relationship with Cameron Diaz. Stupefyingly revealing trailer aside, Cast Away arrives accompanied by as much information about Tom Hanks' physical metamorphosis for his leading role as about the film itself. Fortunately, Robert Zemeckis' film is gripping enough that any head cluttered with the specifics of Hanks' weight-loss regimen (no french fries, he was told) should clear fairly quickly. Hanks plays a well-liked, efficiency-minded executive for an international courier service (referenced glowingly by name throughout) who, after being called away from a Christmas dinner with adoring but neglected girlfriend Helen Hunt, is marooned on a remote island in the South Pacific. With no help forthcoming, Hanks is forced to fall back on his virtually nonexistent survival skills, employing the contents of his wrecked shipment to keep himself fed and sheltered as he fights off a private kind of madness. Once on the island, Zemeckis wastes no time establishing the extremity of Hanks' plight, while Hanks' performance makes his character's desperation apparent at all times. One Gilligan reference aside, there's not a flip moment in Cast Away's island scenes, their impact heightened by the decision to avoid underlining the situation too heavily. With no background music and few obvious emotional cues, these scenes suggest some of the elemental, and before long existential, terror experienced by the film's protagonist, from whose perspective it never strays. Operating in high Spielbergian mode, and occasionally recalling silent-era masters, Zemeckis finds a better outlet for his strong visual sense than his disappointing recent Hitchcock homage What Lies Beneath. Where that film's modest pleasures began and ended with its technical skill, Hanks and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. here allow Zemeckis to go further, particularly during a final act that touches on aspects of the passage of time familiar even to those who've never been near a desert island. Hanks has played virtual everymen for years now, and Cast Away ultimately comes close to turning him into a literal Everyman. Its success is a credit to the thoughtfulness behind its obvious craft. Hanks may have suffered in his season of french-fry deprivation, but he can rest knowing he did so in the service of a film that will be remembered as much for its art as its spectacle.