Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away transpires in three sections that are wildly different from each other in purpose, tone and quality. The first, which introduces Tom Hanks as a troubleshooting, globetrotting FedEx executive, then sends him airborne into a storm that leaves him stranded on a tropical island, is as functional but unremarkable as such expository passages tend to be. The third section, which chronicles the hero’s eventual return home, misfires, alas, running on too long and frittering away many of the film’s earlier strengths. The second section, however, is so terrific that it deserves to be considered a separate movie–one that may be the best thing Hollywood has turned out this year.

Is the Robinson Crusoe idea simply an airtight concept? Put a star like Hanks on a pretty island, stand back and watch the celluloid magic happen? Hanks, whose idea the film was, and Zemeckis have said they worried that the thing could easily fizzle, and I think they’re right. There was no guarantee. With zero human interaction and plenty of chances for ham-fisted contrivance, the island portion of Cast Away could have proved noxiously boring or inane, or both. That it turned out so astonishingly well reflects the high degree of skill, assurance and ingenuity in the execution, plus certain ineffable qualities that perhaps can’t be anticipated until you see the movie actually weave its captivating spell.

The story opens on a western ranch as a package is picked up by a FedEx truck, beginning a journey that will be completed only years later, at the movie’s end. We next jump to Moscow–bustling, harried, post-Communist Moscow–where Chuck Noland (Hanks) is giving an emphatic time-is-money lecture to a group of glassy-eyed Russian workers. A bit later, back in Memphis, Tenn., we see Noland comfortably surrounded by family and his loving fiancee, Kelly (Helen Hunt). The main virtue of this introduction is that it tells us things simply and clearly: We are in the era of the global economy, watching a decent, ordinary man whose world is carefully measured out in increments of time, work, leisure and affection. A world, in short, where “human nature” is inextricably meshed with technology’s artifices.

We can’t help but wonder what happens when such a world explodes, since it is ours, too. The air crash that ruptures Noland’s existence sends him plunging deep into the ocean: an arresting image of death, rebirth and christening all at once. He emerges, dazed but uninjured, on what looks like a stereotypical South Seas island.

The film quickly establishes its primary virtue by focusing on the essential while avoiding the easy and over-obvious. Of course, Noland flounders around trying to make sense of his surroundings and sussing out the skills he needs to survive. He collects rain for drinking water, and at length manages to make a fire. His feet get badly cut before he improvises passable shoes. He buries the body of a FedEx worker that washes in, and sets up Kelly’s photo (mounted into a family-heirloom watch: a transparent, forgivable symbol) as a constant, close-at-hand reminder of the things he loves.

If you think of it, though, there’s an endless number of sappy possibilities that Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles firmly and admirably sidestep, everything from the melodramatics of a crying jag cum breakdown to an infinity of Gilligan’s Island-like gags. Instead, we get things like this: Among the FedEx packages that wash ashore, the contents range from a volleyball to videotapes to a pair of ice skates. Nothing that’s tremendously hilarious or life-savingly useful, in other words. Just an odd bunch of stuff that probably would be in such a shipment. Yet it’s not all drolly disposable: Noland uses those ice skates to crack open coconuts, one of his toughest early challenges.

The volleyball, meanwhile, becomes his one companion. Noland draws a face with his own blood on the ball’s surface, and names it Wilson, for the trademark it bears. He talks to it, and it seems to listen. A wonderful stroke of invention, this device is like much about the movie: smart but not overdone, a handy symbol that also refracts real emotional imperatives. Who, in the same situation, would not devise some absurd way to fend off the demon of loneliness?

Besides its narrative intelligence, this portion of the film has so much going for it on the dramatic and stylistic levels as to make you realize that Hollywood, at its best, has always excelled at the special alchemy of visual storytelling and actorly charisma. Zemeckis and Hanks famously collaborated on the gratingly cute Forrest Gump, but the island portion of Cast Away–which depends on a premise rather a gimmick, and a believable hero rather than sentimental cartoon–is a far superior film, one that makes the most of both men’s talents. Not that there was any doubt after Saving Private Ryan, but Cast Away reiterates Hanks’ status as this era’s Hollywood Everyman, the embodiment of a democratic, middle-class ideal that sets the big-tent American cinema subtly but decisively apart from the class-bound imaginations of Europe. For the actor, the tropical setting underscores the triumphant passage of his last decade: What a long way he’s come, you think, since Joe Versus the Volcano.

The film’s themes, too, are perfectly suited to the movies’ broad canvas. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe arrived not long after marine circumnavigation sparked the first glimpses of a global economy; with the “here be monsters” portions of maps filled in by sea lanes, literate people contemplated the strange fact that human society seemed to have the upper hand on nature, which suddenly became a discrete, alien, conquerable thing. Cast Away likewise arrives at a critical juncture: the moment after cell phones have girdled the globe in another sort of human web, one furthering the tricky, fragile illusion that nothing is beyond technology’s grasp.

What would you do if that illusion suddenly burst? Could you make a fire or split a coconut? Cast Away induces the viewer to ponder such questions, yet the way it does so is just as important as the asking, because it reminds us of a special property of cinema: its amenability to solitude, to inward, individual reflection.

To say that there’s something primal and elemental about Zemeckis’ movie is to speak not only of the natural world it conjures but of its relationship to the medium itself. A movie that might’ve been jointly made by Griffith, Chaplin and Flaherty, Cast Away‘s central section strips away all the complications of dramatic development, action and multiple characters, and allows us to see, for once, cinema’s most essential operation unadorned: viewers identifying with a single human figure, who inhabits a magical visual realm that persuasively stands for all of existence.

It has been suggested that this imaginary process mimics the solitary pleasures of reading. If so, it sets Cast Away–and every movie–apart from Survivor, which, like all of television, favors social ritual over solitude and cannot imagine the world apart from technological intrusion. Alas, the titles of these two diametrically different entertainments are sadly truthful. Cast Away comes to us in the moment when film itself is about to be cast away, leaving video technology as the victorious survivor.

That transition finds a weird, surely unintended corollary within Cast Away. When Noland, after years of solitude and a last heroic effort, finally returns to civilization, it’s as if the movie itself suddenly reverts from the vivid idiosyncrasy of cinema to the bland conventionality of television. Movies exist to tell us that people change, where television reassures us that our favorite personalities are the same night after night, week after week. The makers of Cast Away seem not to understand that the audience returns to society with Noland still in the mental frame of a movie: They want to see how he’s changed. Instead, the film tries to tell us that he’s just the same: he still loves Kelly and his job and so on. This is a horrible, fundamental miscalculation that saddles the movie with a tedious and distended denouement. Yet it does nothing to erase the memory of the great movie that exists at the center of Cast Away.

There was a moment early in Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses when I happily fell into the embrace of a familiar, long-missed pleasure. It was the image of two young cowboys riding like freedom itself across a wild and desolate plain, heading for Mexico and adventure. This, surely, is the primary promise of the western: that we might join the characters’ headlong lunge toward danger, romance and elusive opportunity. If only the promise were as easy to keep as it is to make.

All the Pretty Horses has been trailed by rumors of trouble for nearly a year. It was said to have existed in versions of up to three hours; the version released by Miramax runs just under two. I’ve heard colleagues opine that the movie needed the extra length, and I can agree that the present version feels oddly choppy, with rhythms that belong to a longer, more leisurely paced film. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that longer would have been better. Rather, Horses, which was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller, seems beset with the most common problem of movies made from finely wrought literary novels: Stripped of the transforming magic of language, the unadorned story can seem oddly uncompelling.

The story here definitely lacks something–a strong through-line, a sense of inner necessity driving the narrative’s picaresque unfolding. Matt Damon and Henry Thomas are the two cowboy buddies we see early on, and both actors contribute solid performances to the film. Even better is young Lucas Black, who’s brilliantly rough-edged and idiomatic as the runaway who gets his traveling party into some very bad trouble. In fact, what ails the movie has far less to do with any aspect of execution–Thornton’s direction is capable if not terribly distinguished—than with the curious intractability of the material. Though the tale, which was adapted by Ted Tally, includes romance, peril, death and some colorful equine action, it never adds up to the kind of rugged unity that marks a good western. As has happened countless times before, the novelist’s wily stallion deftly eludes the filmmaker’s earnest lassos. EndBlock