Sunday, May 15, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part infinity: Robert Zemeckis

I. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) II. 1941** (1979) III. Used Cars (1980) IV. Romancing the Stone (1984) V. Back to the Future (1985) VI. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) VII. Back to the Future Part II (1989) VIII. Back to the Future Part III (1990) IX. Death Becomes Her (1992) X. Forrest Gump (1994) XI. Contact (1997) XII. What Lies Beneath (2000) XIII. Cast Away (2000) XIV. The Polar Express (2004) XV. Beowulf (2007) XVI. A Christmas Carol (2009) XVII. Mars Needs Moms* (2011) XVIII. Flight (2012) XIX. The Walk (2015) XX. Allied (2016) XXI. Welcome to Marwen (2018)

Well, unlike in our last filmmaker's retrospective, Robert Zemeckis is still very much an active director: he's got a movie coming out later this year, in fact, and I'm sure as hell excited about it, because the man's been on an upswing lately.  Of course, most people would be on an upswing after A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms, but, hey—let's not take Flight and The Walk away from the man, okay?

The point is, there is no final word on Zemeckis as of yet: he's still making pictures, and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.  We can therefore only sum up what he's done so far—and it's a career that any director (or writer, or producer) would envy.  Even his one-time mentor and all-time friend, Steven Spielberg, must have had to take a step back every five or six years and say, "Well, Bob, you did it better."  Okay, he probably didn't—Spielberg is Spielberg, after all, and keeps his own counsel.  But Forrest Gump does syrupy sentimentality better than any Spielberg film ever has (and even manages to spike it with a bit of real American venom in the process).  Contact is Close Encounters, perhaps not writ larger—but certainly writ one hell of a lot more legibly.  And if the Back to the Future films aren't about to stand up to Indy... well, it's still one fantastic adventure, and the world would be far poorer without it.

Ah, but why must this be the lens through which we view Zemeckis—always a pupil, never the master?  It's a long shadow for a man to live in.  And it hasn't been the right way to look at Zemeckis since at least 1994.  Heck, maybe 1984.

Instead, let's reflect upon Zemeckis' career as Zemeckis' career.  It began with Spielberg, sure.  And it also began with a lot of crap: it took Zemeckis a long time to learn that full-tilt insanity was no way to make movies that people liked, and that's how his Shrillness Trilogy—for Zemeckis' career is extraordinarily amenable to being subdivided into trilogies, and not just the obvious, official one—must be seen as something of a stain upon his early filmography.  Yes, Used Cars has its charms, and Spielberg's 1941 (which Zemeckis helped script) is worthwhile in a very, very attenuated sense, but I Wanna Hold Your Hand would be a pretty lousy debut for anybody, and especially a director who'd bounce back with some of the greatest movies of all time.

After that, there was Romancing the Stone, which finally gave him his own traction in the industry, and the valuable experience of working on someone else's screenplay—an exercise which apparently finally taught him that "characterization" and "tone" were important parts of a motion picture.

He brought that experience back to his friend and old writing partner, Bob Gale, and they finished Back to the Future.  And we needn't belabor BttF any more than we already have, though we clearly can't get away with failing to note what he did in between BttF and Part II, which was one of the most technologically-audacious films ever made, that amazing hybrid of live-action and animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Following those twin triumphs, he transitioned into more prestigious fare (with a stopover in super-goofy body horror, in the half-forgotten gem Death Becomes Her).  Thus began what I like to call Zemeckis' Philosophical Pessimist Trilogy—Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away—which all dealt meaningfully with the apparent lack of meaning in our existence.  Yet, as befitting Zemeckis' resolute commitment to telling stories for a mass audience, they do so in an unflaggingly populist manner.  (Well, maybe not Contact.  But, damn it, I love it anyway.)

Well, we can disregard What Lies Beneath as make-work, I suppose—even if it's nowhere even close to a "bad" movie.  And that leaves us with the Mo-Cap Trilogy... and what to say about that, that I haven't said already?  The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol (not to mention Zemeckis' production of Simon Wells' studio-leveling Mars Needs Moms) represent more-or-less the nadir of his career.  Certainly, it is the nadir of his mature career.  (Should I mention that I'm the only one who calls his first three flicks a "Shrillness Trilogy"?  Perhaps it'll catch on.  Those movies have some pretty serious issues.)

Anyway, Zemeckis had a dream—and, honestly, if nothing else, you have to admire the passion with which Zemeckis took up arms to try to make motion capture animation the future of filmmaking, even if you stridently disagree with him.  And yet, whether the technology wasn't there, or the technique, or perhaps even the talent, I'm afraid we must write off those twelve years he spent on his mad quest as a failure.  Leave it to James Cameron, Bob; he has the formula.

But now we're back to the future, so to speak, and here we find our new Zemeckian classics, Flight and The Walk.  What will Allied bring to the table?  Can we put those three movies together into some new trilogy?  Well, that would be pretty arbitrary, but we'll see.  (Update: we did, and it brought very little to this particular table, sad to say; it was up to 2018's Welcome to Marwen to complete that trilogy, instead.)

So let us simply close on a brief defense of Zemeckis, as if he needs it—but perhaps he does, because I can't think of a single filmmaker as absolutely and routinely successful as Robert Zemeckis who is not given his due as an artist and as an auteur (whatever that word really means).  His is a singular style; his is a singular vision.  Indeed, it's a vision that I'd like to see more of in Hollywood—he has the demeanor of a natural entertainer, but he's never been afraid to go places where lesser filmmakers have feared to tread.  So: three cheers for one of the greats, and here's a ranked list, since people seem to enjoy that kind of thing.  (Updated 11/30/2016, to bring Allied into the fold, and 1/12/2019, for Welcome to Marwen)

19a. MARS NEEDS MOMS (3/10)*
17a. 1941 (5.01/10)**
17. THE POLAR EXPRESS (5.01/10)
16. USED CARS (6/10)
15. BEOWULF (6/10)
14. ALLIED (6/10)
10. THE WALK (8/10)
9. FLIGHT (8/10)
6. CONTACT (9/10)
2. FORREST GUMP (10/10)
1. CAST AWAY (10/10)***

Films marked with one asterisk (*) indicate films that Zemeckis only produced, but did not write or direct.  Films marked with two asterisks (**) indicate films that Zemeckis helped write, but did not direct.
Films marked with three asterisks (***) indicate Cast Away, and man, do I fucking love Cast Away.


  1. Holy crap, you did it! You're like a blogging cheetah!

    We got to a thorny part where I hadn't seen most of the movies, but it's been interesting reading along!

    1. Thanks Brennan! (And there's no shame in never having seen A Christmas Carol or Mars Needs Moms. But tell me you've at least seen Cast Away.)

      Anyway, guess it's on to the next guy (though there are six more Spielbergs left to go before The BGF comes out on July 1).

      I think the palate cleanser should be Irwin Allen. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno don't get enough love.

      However, if you're not doing Joe Dante, I might!

    2. I don't really have the time to get into a full director's series at the moment, but I'm kind of working in Wes Craven and Pedro Almodovar around the edges. And when my schedule clears up, I'm probably going to launch into Dario Argento, so Joe Dante is free as a bird.

      And I have seen Castaway, but I was very VERY young and don't remember too much of it.

  2. Hey Hunter - my podcast is doing a Top 5 Robert Zemeckis Movies podcast episode next week. Any chance you'd like to submit a written list of your own picks for me to read? Or you could even phone in if you're interested? (I suppose I could just pull your ranking from here and use snippets from your review)

    1. I could do the first thing and potentially the second though I am reclusive, so I dunno. I faintly feel like I'm being intellectually dishonest having a top five because I still haven't seen The Witches (remember that? does it even still exist? and this isn't even snark, I'm actually not sure, I sort of assumed it would be on HBOMax forever and, uh, we know how that assumption has worked out for some things) or Pinocchio. Though the possibility of those being out of the bottom five is slim.

      But the list above isn't too different than my present thoughts, the only distinction being I'd probably drop The Walk and Flight down a notch and bump Romancing the Stone up. Of course I'm tempted to trollishly claim Welcome to Marwen is actually my present no. 5. (It is, even so, the reason I hesitate to completely dismiss The Witches as potentially good, though surely there's no hope for Pinocchio, a movie I don't genuinely like the good version of).

    2. The door is open for you to join us if you're interested. Looking at your list, all of your top 5 will be in either mine or Brian's list (and his and mine will probably have 3 overlap), so I'm not sure if it will be the most discursive or contentious conversation. But if you're up for adding a few sentences to each of your Top 5 for me to read aloud, or you're interested in joining the call, send me an email at and/or comment on something. I'll probably mention and read through your list even if I don't hear from you. Cheers

      (Brian hasn't seen every Zemeckis, and I'm a coin flip to get to the ones I haven't seen before we record, so your Witches gap would not be problematic or noticeable. I can assure you Pinocchio is not in your top 5.)

  3. Out of curiosity did you ever see Trespass? You reviewed 1941 so I figured his scripts are fair game for the retrospective.

    1. Embarrassingly, it's the first time I've even heard of it! Looks more interesting than a remake of a Nic Roeg movie I didn't like when Nic Roeg did it--neat cast and while I'm cool on Walter Hill, he's a solid diretor.