When people consider of the most influential and pioneering filmmakers of the past few decades, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas are usually the first names that come to mind. One director who doesn’t come up in conversation nearly enough, though, is Robert Zemeckis. That’s not to say this Oscar-winning director is underappreciated. Where so many modern directors aspire to be the next Hitchcock, Kubrick or Scorsese, however, you don’t hear a lot of people saying that they want to be the next Zemeckis. That’s a bit of a shame as he truly deserves to be ranked among the all time greats.
With Back to the Future recently celebrating its 30th anniversary and The Walk coming out this October, now’s as good a time as ever to look back at the career of Zemeckis. Like all great directors, Zemeckis has never forgotten one essential rule throughout his four active decades in film: No matter how visually stunning or revolutionary a picture is, that doesn’t mean anything without a compelling story or characters. Spielberg has also lived by this philosophy throughout his career. Thus, it’s no surprise that Zemeckis and Spielberg would cross paths several times.
Ironically, these two weren’t an instant match made in heaven as their first collaboration bombed big time. With Spielberg behind the camera and Zemeckis co-writing the screenplay with Bob Gale, 1941 turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of 1979. While it has gained a cult following in recent years, many complained that 1941 was overblown and lacked heart upon release.
With every failure, however, there’s always room for growth. Spielberg would learn from 1941’s spectacle over story, as would Zemeckis, who directed and co-wrote Used Cars in 1980. Although not a financial hit, the film’s biting satire did exemplify that Zemeckis was definitely a director to watch out for. Zemeckis was finally given a chance to fully showcase his knack for humor, adventure and whimsy with 1984’s Romancing the Stone.
Although viewed as a Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off at first glance, the film’s script was actually completed five years prior to Spielberg’s love letter to old school serials. While Romancing the Stone might not have gotten off the ground without the influence of Indiana Jones, Zemeckis would make the film his own with thrilling action, sweeping romance and lovable characters.
The critical and financial success of Romancing the Stone made leeway for Zemeckis to make arguably the most timeless picture of his career, Back to the Future. With Zemeckis directing and Steven Spielberg acting as a producer, Back to the Future is a testament to what made the 80’s the absolute best era for summer blockbusters. The movie was funny and left your heart racing until the last minute, but Back to Future managed to be more than one laugh and action set piece after another. It told a meaningful story with characters we care about and would follow anywhere.
Audiences would continue to follow Marty McFly and Doc Brown as Back to the Future inspired two of the most well conceived sequels ever. While the original is the trilogy’s best outing, Back to the Future: Part II and Part III both have their own unique signatures. Where they could have just been cheap, money-driven follow-ups like so many other Hollywood sequels, Zemeckis packed each with hilarious running gags, fresh ideas and his own passion. The trilogy wasn’t planned out ahead of time, but Zemeckis still brought everything full circle flawlessly. BTW, it’s 2015 and we still don’t have any hoverboards!
Speaking of flawless movies that haven’t aged a day, few pictures remain as magical as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film is of course special effects revelation with Zemeckis’s human cast and Richard Williams’ animated characters interacting without a second of disbelief. What’s even more incredible than watching Bob Hoskins play off Roger Rabbit, though, is seeing Daffy Duck and Donald Duck engage in a piano duel.
That’s the real magic of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Zemeckis not only brought these cartoon all-stars to life, but also made us believe more than ever that Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop are just as real as Groucho Marx, Mickey Rooney and Marilyn Monroe. The film opened everyone’s eyes to just how significant animation is, amounting to Disney’s renaissance of classics in the 90’s.
Backed by Zemeckis’ technical wizardly, Roger Rabbit won three Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. Zeckeckis subsequent directorial outing, Death Becomes Her, would also achieved a special effects Oscar. Zemeckis’ biggest hit with audiences and the Academy, though, would be 1994’s Forrest Gump. That film also deservedly won the Best Visual Effects Oscar for integrating Tom Hanks into active footage and creating the most iconic feather in cinematic history. Forrest Gump took home much more, however, winning Best Picture and Best Director for Zemeckis as well.
Forrest Gump has received some backlash in recent years, being the film that beat out Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption for Oscar’s top prize. While 1994 did arguably bring us superior films, Forrest Gump will always be regarded as one of the most quotable and rewatchable motions pictures of all time. Like Zemeckis’ previous efforts, this is one of those rare movies has everything: Comedy, drama, tears and a beautifully told story presented through the eyes of an absorbing protagonist. Although it may to be too sentimental for some, to me it’s cinematic perfection.
On the heels of what might be his magnum opus, Zemeckis had several more successes with Contact, What Lies Beneath and Cast Away. He took his career in a different direction in 2004, though, with The Polar Express. Like Roger Rabbit, the film utilized animated characters and human actors, but not exactly in the same way. To bring Chris Van Allsburg’s storybook to life, Zemeckis turned to motion capture animation, which records a performer’s actions and transfers them onto a digital model.
Some audiences were turned off by the look of Polar Express, which created a strange world somewhere in between our reality and animation. The film has become a true Christmas classic over the years, however, encompassing all the joy, the wonder and even the grimness that encompasses the holiday. It’s actually kind of shocking just how sophisticated the film is in its honest portrayal of a child facing the notion that Santa Claus may not be real.
At the same time, Zemeckis delivered a truly enchanting experience that understood the power of its source material, earning comparison to The Wizard of Oz. The Polar Express also notably exemplified the potential for 3D filmmaking, integrating the audience in a winter wonderland that practically felt tangible. While 3D has since become overexposed, movies like Avatar, Hugo and Gravity clearly took a page from Zemeckis’ effective use of 3D.
Zemeckis would stick with motion capture for the next several years, making the entertaining Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Sadly, Zemeckis’ company, ImagineMovers Digital, saw its abrupt end with the box office dud, Mars Needs Moms. Alas, we’ll never see that motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine or retelling of The Nutcracker. A sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit is also as unlikely as ever.
This setback didn’t stop Zemeckis from making movies, though. In 2012, he returned to the realm of live-action with Flight, starring Denzel Washington as a pilot battling addiction. While the picture contains one of Zemeckis’ most visually gripping sequences in the form of a plane crash, the most powerful image is that of Washington contemplating whether to throw away his sobriety and drink from a mini liquor bottle. Once again, it’s the humanity that makes this Zemeckis film so great. We can only hope Zemeckis will bring that same humanity to The Walk, which will depict Philippe Petit’s unbelievable high-wire journey between the Twin Towers. It won’t be easy topping the daring documentary Man on Wire, but Zemeckis definitely has the fortitude to pull it off.
What’s amazing about all of Zemeckis’ cinematic achievements is how different each one is not only on a visual level, but on a narrative level too. Whether dabbling with CGI, animation, digital effects, 3D or live-action, he’s a director that’s constantly exploring new technology to tell to grander stories. Although his films initially leave you wondering, “how did they do that,” Zemeckis knows that this astonished sentiment will be fleeting in an industry where effects are constantly evolving. Characters like Forrest Gump, Marty McFly and Roger Rabbit, however, will last forever.