Robert Zemeckis stages a dandy airplane-crash-into-the-sea about twenty minutes into “Cast Away,” and it’s an impressive accomplishment, even beside the similar episodes we’ve seen in “Fearless” (1993) and “Final Destination” (1999), among other recent films. Nor has Zemeckis’ technical skill abandoned him elsewhere in the picture. It opens with an extended scene of a package being delivered over a long distance, shot mostly from the parcel’s point of view–a device that’s self-consciously clever, to be sure (just as the falling feather business was in “Forrest Gump”), but good for a chuckle when carried off as nicely as it is here. And throughout this new effort one is always conscious of a real craftsman at work: even the most difficult shots are impeccably done, so that one can savor the behind-the-camera virtuosity continuously on display.

But Zemeckis seems to have lost the sense of spontaneity and sheer fun that informed his early pictures, from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1978) and the fearlessly vulgar “Used Cars” (1980) through “Back to the Future” (1985). His more recent work has more and more emphasized surface perfection at the expense of real spirit. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) was the transitional piece: it retained the director’s old exuberance while adding incredible sheen to it. But the two “Back to the Future” sequels (1989 and 1990) were pale reflections of the original, emphasizing look-at-me wizardry above all else, and “Death Becomes Her” (1992) was completely artificial and vacuous. Then “Forrest Gump” (1994) added a vein of self-important pomposity to the mix. Zemeckis hasn’t been the same since; “Contact” (1997) was a ponderous, pretentious bore, and even the recent “What Lies Beneath,” which could have been a funny roller-coaster ride of a movie if it had been a bit grubbier, came across as dutiful and cheerless because it was made with such unwarranted concern for appearances.

“Cast Away,” unhappily, demonstrates that the director is still suffering from a bad case of self-importance. A story which is basically nothing more than an updating of “Robinson Crusoe” has been transformed from a potentially exciting adventure tale into an Important Statement About What’s Really Important in Life; what Zemeckis might once have treated as a lighthearted romp along the lines of 1940’s “Too Many Husbands” is now presented as a heavy-handed Hymn To The Human Spirit, and a pretty joyless one at that. The film looks great–one is constantly amazed by its visual beauty and surface elegance–but it never succeeds in connecting with us emotionally in the way it’s clearly meant to do.

That isn’t the fault of Tom Hanks, who contributes a heroic effort to what’s essentially a one-man show. But as Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee marooned on a small, uninhabited South Pacific island for four years before escaping back to civilization, the personable star impresses us more by reason of the physical demands we know the role must have made on him than because of any underlying eloquence in his performance. In the picture’s initial twenty-minute segment, he’s presented as a hard-driving workaholic who even puts his romance with winsome doctoral student Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) second to the demands of his stressful job (surely FedEx must have paid handsomely for its characterization as a company that always puts its customers first). Here Hanks is suitably aggressive and smart-alecky, but he seems to be coasting. Then occurs the plane crash (a truly harrowing few minutes), and Noland begins his ordeal as a stranded survivor. This segment of the flick, lasting some seventy minutes, itself falls into two parts. In the first, a somewhat flabby Chuck struggles to make the island habitable; we watch him employ the few items available to him (some extracted from packages that wash up on shore from the flight) to fashion what he needs, and gradually learn to accept his lot. Hanks is credible here, but the script could have used a bit more heft in depicting his struggle; anyone who’s read Thomas Berger’s fine 1994 novel, “Robert Crews,” will realize how much more imaginatively it might have been done. Then we flash forward four years. A leaner, more muscular Hanks (the shoot actually went on a long hiatus to give him time to buff up), bearded and grizzled, has become an increasingly adept solitary, though he still has understandable periods of anger and depression. Then the arrival of some debris usable as a sail enables him to construct a raft capable of getting past the waves that wash against the island, and in an exciting fifteen-minute sequence he escapes, eventually finding refuge on a passing steamer. This section of the picture finds Hanks doing a solid take on a man whose isolation has made him strangely intense and occasionally a bit mad, but it’s more his appearance than his emoting that catches the eye. The final half-hour depicts Noland’s re-entrance into civilization, including a meeting with Frears. Now Hanks adopts a rather withdrawn, reticent style which is quiety effective. Unfortunately, Zemeckis and scripter William Broyles rather ruin things with a pretentious episode in which the protagonist is shown at a rural crossroads–representing the choices he now has to make, get it?–which is at best a hamfisted attempt to show the character’s indecision over his future.

The heavy-handedness of this sequence mirrors a similarly explicit approach in the first act, when Noland is depicted as constantly obsessed with time, to the extent of undervaluing what ought really to be important to him. This theme is hammered home so relentlessly that a viewer eventually seems almost as buffeted by it as Chuck is by the Pacific waves a bit later on. (The man so concerned with time suddenly has nothing but time on his hands, see?) Then, toward the close, when the hero finds himself “at sea” back in the civilization he’s been absent from for so long, the irony is emphasized much too broadly, too. If only the filmmakers had had a bit more confidence in the ability of their audience to appreciate the points they were making, they might have adopted a more subtle approach and produced a less obviously didactic and ponderous picture.

Still, there’s much to appreciate here. Visually, as has been noted, the film is mightily impressive–the island and escape-at-sea episodes are especially well-crafted, and the crash sequence a marvel. Hanks, too, is excellent, even if one admires him mostly for the physical endurance so demanding a role required of him. Since this is essentially a one-person piece, the rest of the cast is at best decent. Hunt is acclaimed as one of our best current actresses, and she certainly has gotten lots of work lately, but frankly she’s not much more impressive here than she was in “Pay It Forward” or “What Women Want”–fine, but not outstanding. There’s no Friday on the island with the protagonist in this Dafoe updating; instead Noland puts a face on a volleyball with which he then converses, and which, after its maker, he dubs “Wilson” (another example of product placement, no doubt). The ball does well enough, though it’s less expressive than the growling refrigerator in the recent “Requiem for a Dream”–it’s been a banner year for supporting implements. (In the present case, one might well sympathize with minority actors if they complain that the “Friday” role, which should have gone to one of them, instead has been assigned to an inanimate object.)

In closing, one might recall that there has been one quite remarkable filmization of the original “Robinson Crusoe”– Luis Bunuel’s 1953 version with Dan O’Herlihy (“The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”) which is well worth investigating. As for Zemeckis’ modernization, it’s certainly not bad enough to cast away, but it’s not worth embracing, either.