Director Retrospective: Robert Zemeckis
Normally, I’m hoping to limit these retrospectives to one or two a week — that is, when I have the time / inclination to do any of them at all. Last week’s pair was Ridley Scott & Tony Scott, while this week’s pair was Tim Burton & Terry Gilliam. So why am I writing now about Robert Zemeckis? Well…originally, I’d planned to pair Zemeckis with Ron Howard during my first retrospective week; however, at the last minute, I realized that there were still a couple Zemeckis films that I wanted to see before doing a write-up on his filmography. But I’ve watched said films and now I’m correcting that brief delay. So…without further ado…
The Big List
So far, by my count, I’ve seen 16 (out of 18) Robert Zemeckis films. If I haven’t seen it, then it’s not included in the list below or the discussion. [NOTE: From what I can tell, there are only two Zemeckis films that I’ve not yet seen: his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), and Death Becomes Her (1992). If there are any that I’ve missed, let me know!]
Here’s the list: Used Cars (1980); Romancing the Stone (1984); Back to the Future (1985); Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988); Back to the Future II (1989); Back to the Future III (1990); Forrest Gump (1994); Contact (1997); What Lies Beneath (2000); Cast Away (2000); The Polar Express (2004); Beowulf (2007); A Christmas Carol (2009); Flight (2012); The Walk (2015); Allied (2016).
The Top Five
Here are my picks for the top-five Zemeckis films (from #1-#5, with a few brief comments included)…
Back to the Future (1985) – For those of you who came here looking for a “surprise” pick, I’m sorry to disappoint you. So here it is: Sorry. Because the best Zemeckis film is (and almost certainly always will be) Back to the Future. That’s it. Call the rest of the game. I know that there are some of you out there who actually prefer the sequel to the original, but nope. Back to the Future is the Warriors, Patriots, and Penguins all rolled into one — i.e the team that ought to win and then…(surprise!)…of course does. Michael J. Fox (as Marty McFly) and Christopher Lloyd (as Doc Brown) give iconic performances to the film, further strengthened by some wonderful roles from Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, and Thomas F. Wilson. Written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the story features excellent action moments bolstered by some genuinely funny and memorable dialogue. Yes…if you’re nitpicky, the film has flaws. (Why does Doc Brown hangout with a high-school kid? How exactly does Doc Brown find Libyan terrorists from which to steal plutonium? How is Marty playing a guitar-model in the past that doesn’t exist yet? Etc. etc. etc.) To those of you concerned about such things, just…just stop. Stop and think about how different the world would be if, instead, we’d been given a film with Eric Stoltz in the leading role as planned. That’s not a world I want to live in. Count your blessings, y’all.
Contact (1997) – Now…this might be a surprise pick for some, especially this early in the “Top-5” list. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, Contact tells the story of a scientist (played wonderfully by Jodie Foster), who hears what seems to be a message (of sorts) from outer-space that instructs humanity to construct a device. From there, the narrative unpacks what would happen — scientifically, politically, religiously, etc. — in a world where we have to confront the existence of other cosmic, intelligent lifeforms. In addition to Foster’s performance (and really…this is arguably the best of her career), there are also strong performances from the likes of Matthew McConaughey (in a different type of role for him at that point), Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, William Fichtner, Angela Bassett, and James Woods. While it’s somewhat sentimental, it’s also very moving. While some might accuse it of over-simplifying the complexities of the debate between science and religion, it interacts with these ideas in a way that ultimately feels, at least to my viewing, respectful of the potential benefits / pitfalls of both positions. And, to go back to Foster again, she provides perhaps the most thoughtful and “human” depiction of a scientist in all of film — i.e. she’s wickedly smart and dedicated but she’s also not “perfect” or entirely fearless. This is a film that I have re-watched many times and always enjoyed.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – If you’re at all like me, you probably watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit way before you should have (because cartoons) and, as a result, you may have missed out on most / all of the genre homages, filmic references, and bawdy jokes. It wasn’t until I watched Roger Rabbit as an adult that the film finally clicked with me, and I came to appreciate it as a pretty brilliant film. Produced by Steven Spielberg (who seems to frequently collaborate with Zemeckis), it’s hard to imagine how a film like this got made. It was crazy expensive at the time because of the animation that had to be expertly synced with the live-action performers. Its main human star (Bob Hoskins, a great actor who is wonderful in this role) wasn’t exactly the “Hollywood type” in terms of a big, studio-backed, box-office film. It featured characters from both Walt Disney and Warner Brothers — how they were able to convince those two adversarial companies to share screen-time with one another will forever be a mystery to me. Moreover, it features Zemeckis’s tendency to sometimes mash-up really (seemingly) disparate genres into a film that somehow…works. After all, who knew there was a need for a live-action animated noir buddy comedy for adult audiences? It’s laughable to think about but, again, it just works. Christopher Lloyd is legitimately frightening as “Judge Doom,” an uncredited Kathleen Turner voices the sultry Jessica Rabbit, and Charles Fleischer brings life to the character of Roger Rabbit. [Here’s one for the weird files: Fleischer, for reasons that will only ever be known or clear to him, decided to dress as Roger Rabbit while he recorded his lines even though he knew that he would never appear on camera. Why? These are the questions we do not ask.] Anyway…go re-watch this film on a rainy day and experience a strange range of emotions.
Back to the Future Part II (1989) – Most of what I said earlier about the original can apply to Back to the Future Part II as well. Overall, it’s an extremely well-balanced film that deftly navigates action and comedy, and it has the added benefit of being somewhat more menacing than its predecessor. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd return and are, once again, wonderful as Marty McFly and Doc Brown (respectively). There’s the hoverboard and the self-tying Nike shoes, which are awesome. But I want to add some additional praise here to an actor that I only briefly mentioned earlier: Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen. A lot has been said over the past year or so about how much the dumb, loutish, despicable, violent, bully Biff Tannen (as played by Wilson) resembles a real-life dumb, loutish, despicable, violent bully whose name I won’t mention. And, indeed, it’s one of those things that I had never really noticed but, now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t not notice while watching the film. While it’s a truly great fictional representation of a real-life person, I hope that it doesn’t cause viewers to miss the fact that Wilson’s doing some legitimately great work in this role. Now, of course, there are some problems with Back to the Future Part II — for instance, there’s no Crispin Glover (though that could be a criticism lobbied against most films) and, while casting Elisabeth Shue to replace Claudia Wells in the role of Jennifer Parks feels like an inspired choice, she’s not given all that much to do here in comparison with her male counterparts, which is a bit of a bummer. Still…you can do worse than watching what was, apparently, Carl Sagan’s favorite film ever on the concept of time-travel.
Cast Away (2000) – One of the things that I’ve noticed about Zemeckis’s films is that they often, and for reasons that I can’t quite articulate, click with audiences on a near zeitgeist-like level. Another thing is that the dude knows how to film a tense action-scene with a degree of consistency and efficiency like few other directors. Both of these characteristics are on display in Cast Away. After all, there is no logical reason why viewers (and I mean LOTS of viewers) should develop an emotional connection to a volleyball; but, by god, tell me that you didn’t get a little sad when Tom Hanks unsuccessfully tries to rescue his friend. (WILSON!!!!) It’s stupid but, as I said earlier with the discussion about Roger Rabbit, these stupid things find a way of working a lot of time in Zemeckis’s films, though they’re ridiculous and shouldn’t work. Moreover, Cast Away‘s plane-crash scene — like the climactic tightrope shot in The Walk, like the emergency landing in Flight, etc. — is harrowing and legitimately pulse-pounding. Hanks gives a great performance here in a role where he basically carries a big movie all by himself in a way that few other actors would be able, and you really do undergo an emotional rollercoaster ride with the character from confusion through anxiety and depression all the way toward resoluteness. Not a “great” film but, I would argue, a very good one — and especially so when considering how it could have (and probably should have) gone all wrong.
The Underrated One
For the reasons mentioned above, I think that Contact is an underrated film. If I’m remembering correctly, What Lies Beneath (2000) did well commercially but received mostly mixed / bad reviews from critics. While it’s not a “great” film by any stretch of the imagination, it does feature Harrison Ford in an intriguing role — a rare one that allows him to play far against type — and it’s a (generally) pretty solid supernatural mystery / thriller in the mold of Hitchcock. I would argue that Forrest Gump (1994) — at one time a grossly overrated film — has, in the subsequent years and via a critical backlash, now become slightly underrated. It’s a perfectly fine movie and one that is, at times, so overtly tongue-in-cheek that it’s hard to ignore it’s often scathing satirical critiques of American society. However, I’m going to go with Romancing the Stone (1984) here. Now…this might seem like a weird pick for “underrated” for some of you — after all, at its release, it was a critical and commercial success. But to my mind, it seems like it’s been lost a bit in the wash. After all, when you think of Robert Zemeckis films, chances are that you don’t think of Romancing the Stone but, rather, think of the Back to the Future franchise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Castaway, maybe those creepy mo-cap animated films, etc. etc. That’s unfortunate because, even though it isn’t groundbreaking, this film is a very enjoyable film in the classic “adventure” mode. (Think: good-but-not-as-good version of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito all put forth solid performances. And there’s a hilarious, gratuitously out-of-tone death scene that comes near the movie’s conclusion. (Sorry for the spoiler to follow but…the villain gets his arm ripped off by a crocodile, then gets a cigar put out on his cheek, then gets bludgeoned with some driftwood, then gets set on fire, then falls into a pit…full of said crocodiles and, presumably, gets eaten. It’s so over-the-top that I felt morally compelled to rewind and re-watch it again. It’s amazing.)
The One to Avoid
Which one to choose here? Well…Zemeckis’s second film, Used Cars (1980), is pretty jaw-droppingly misogynistic at several points and is mostly unfunny too. I don’t think Back to the Future III (1990) is all that great in comparison to the earlier installments of the franchise and is pretty forgettable aside from the trivia fact that it’s the one where they almost accidentally killed Michael J. Fox. (Seriously.) And I’d be well within my right to list any of Zemeckis’s forays into animation in the 2000s, as they all violate “the uncanny valley” for me — particularly Beowulf (2007), which has the added “bonus” of not being very good either. But my pick here is The Walk (2015). It’s definitely not the worst film in Zemeckis’s canon. After all, the cast is talented, and the climactic scene of Philippe Petit’s “stunt” is genuinely harrowing and captivating. (I can’t imagine seeing it on the big screen; I think it would’ve made me nauseous.) So, why am I picking it then? Because, while it’s an alright fictionalized portrayal of Petit’s (in)famous walk across the two towers, the documentary original — entitled Man on Wire (2008) — is just much better and more memorable. Watch the doc, skip the movie.
The Place to Start
Yeah…start with Back to the Future. Ha ha! I don’t always recommend that you start with a director’s “best” film — in fact, I often don’t recommend that — because it’s frequently better to start with a solid / good film, acclimate to that director’s style / approach, and then work your way toward their best work. But no…not in this case. Just start with this classic, enjoyable, and entertaining flick and go from there. Really…you should probably re-watch Back to the Future about once a year, just to be on the safe side.
The Final Word
One of the things that I found to be most surprising when creating my arbitrary “Top 200(ish) Directors” list for this project was that there were a few directors whose works I had seen way more than I ever expected. Robert Zemeckis was one such director. If you’d asked me to name off my “favorite” directors, Zemeckis certainly wouldn’t have even cracked the “Top 20” list and, yet, I had seen something like 13-14 of his movies already (before the project) without even trying — far more than most of the other directors on my list. Of course, the quantity of films isn’t exactly an accurate benchmark, but it is interesting to think about: What was it about his films that I found compelling? Why was I drawn to watch these movies, even if I didn’t know they were his movies? Upon some reflection, I’ve come to have a greater, more deliberate appreciation for Zemeckis’s oeuvre. To me, even though he’s made some films that seem more “prestige-minded” in their aims, there’s definitely a taste of the popcorn in them. Like Ron Howard (the director with whom I had originally planned to pair this retrospection), Zemeckis brings a certain craftsmanship and legitimacy to films that could’ve have easily, in the hands of a lesser director, been churned out as forgettable waste. There are few directors who have combined genres so memorably (e.g. Back to the Future Part III is a sci-fi buddy comedy adventure Western franchise sequel…for the whole family!) and have shown such a willingness to play with different forms of filmmaking (e.g. animation), which I respect even when the end products aren’t quite successful. In my old age, I guess I’m just losing my edge and becoming more appreciative of a good mainstream movie.