One thing that Zemeckis really has excelled at in his career is taking chances. He was the first director to make a major movie that had actors acting with cartoon characters. He was the first director to use technology that allowed the same actor to interact with himself as another character in the same shot. As a young director he fired his primary actor who had shot nearly all of his scenes and replaced him. He made a movie where over half of it contains virtually no dialogue. He’s not a great director. He seems unable to elevate a mediocre script, leaving good actors out in the cold. But there’s a few things he’s good at, and he’s very good at them.
Death Becomes Her: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn compete for Bruce Willis’s love, duking it out Mortal Kombat style as they’ve both consumed immortality treatments that literally makes them survive everything. This should have been good, but the script is really lacking. The special effects are good for the time but even at the age of twelve I was really unimpressed with everything.
What Lies Beneath: Michelle Pfeiffer has been seeing a ghost, so she investigates while her professor husband (Harrison Ford) suffers the consequences. It starts out interesting with some genuinely suspenseful scenes, and then completely derails in the final third.
Forrest Gump: Tom Hanks is developmentally disabled and fatherless, learning his lessons in life from his mama Sally Field and his best friend Jenny (Robin Wright). Somehow he is able to join the Army in Vietnam, which leads to a number of crazy successes in life as he becomes a table tennis champion, inspires T-shirts, talks to JFK, runs his own shrimp company with the help of Army buddy Gary Sinise, and so on. It’s certainly engaging and the acting performances are top-notch, but as a dramatic story it does little for me. Plus, his relationship with Jenny really starts to make me uncomfortable by the end.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit: A really cool premise, as the worlds of Hollywood and Toon Town literally meet. The plot is simply a standard detective story, but the jazz comes from real actors engaging with cartoons, completely unheard of 1988. Kathleen Turner does a good job as the sultry Jessica Rabbit, while Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd are capable acting with their toon co-stars. A bit of a novelty these days, but still watchable.
Contact: Based on Carl Sagan’s story of a girl (Jodie Foster) whose father encourages her scientific spirit and then goes and dies on her, fueling her drive into an all-work, no-play life searching the stars. She discovers what is believed to be plans from an alien species to build a spaceship to go visit them. Politics soon enter the discussion which naturally miffs Foster. More drama than science-fiction, exploring and contrasting Foster’s atheist views to the politicians and other scientists who get to decide whether or not she’ll be allowed to make first contact. Matthew McConaughey is fine but he was miscast as Foster’s lover slash Christian counterpart. Foster is superb and really makes the movie watchable.
Back to the Future Part III: The final movie in the trilogy sees Marty and Doc end up in the Old West, trying to stay alive while figuring out how to get the Delorean to work with 1885 technology. As a western it’s a bit lacking, with an obvious set and a non-authentic atmosphere. As a time travel movie it’s lacking, as the movie focuses mostly on it being a western. However, as a character piece, it’s really quite good. Doc’s character grows by leaps and bounds as he falls in love with a schoolteacher (Mary Steenburgen) who was supposed to die, and Christopher Lloyd hits a home run with his performance. Unfortunately, Marty doesn’t really develop for the second movie in a row, and is there just for comic relief (which Fox is good at). Despite its flaws I can’t help but watch it whenever it’s on thanks to all of the charm. I just wish the ending was more satisfying.
Back to the Future Part II: The second movie in the series is utterly preposterous, with the primary characters ignoring the obvious several times, making things harder on themselves just to serve the wacky plot, which sees our main characters time travel relentlessly. From a plot perspective, this movie is only here to set up the third movie. There’s no significant character development. However, it’s a hell of a lot of fun thanks to Zemeckis’ and Bob Gale’s vision of the future as well as forcing Marty and Doc to revisit 1955 and run into their own selves from the previous movie. Fox playing four separate characters (including his daughter) is also fun. Zemeckis is a master at exposition. So many times in these movies Doc has to go on a rant, trying to explain the intricacies of time travel to Marty (and the audience), and makes it interesting every time. Christopher Lloyd helps as usual, as he really becomes his character.
Cast Away: Tom Hanks, a FedEx employee whose life is run by the clock, winds up the sole survivor of a plane crash and finds himself alone on an island without any communication to the civilized world. The movie is bookended by ho-hum drama elements involving Hanks’ relationship with Helen Hunt, but the hour and a half or so that focuses on Hanks’ struggles on the island (and getting off it) is brilliant movie-making. With the only dialogue being Hanks talking to himself (and even that goes away after a while), the movie must rely on Hanks’ acting and Zemeckis’ directing to explore the isolation, fear, and depression that Hanks goes through. They succeed.
Back to the Future: The hallmark time travel movie (and my favorite movies) sees Michael J. Fox accidentally go back in time and accidentally prevent his parents from hooking up. After seeing this at least a hundred times, I can confidently say that Gale and Zemeckis created as flawless a script as possible. While it’s easily watchable for kids thanks to quotable one-liners, fun music and suspenseful action, there are layers and layers of intricacy weaved in to make it watchable by adults repeatedly. The movie never insults the viewer by overexplaining things, all the while effectively getting buy-in to this world where time travel is possible. Easter Eggs are plenty, and repeated viewings reveal double-meaning in nearly every line of dialogue. Zemeckis somehow manages to weave in incest themes without making it trite or uncomfortable. It also helps that Crispin Glover puts in a dynamite performance as Fox’s father. Despite the amazing scripts, I wonder how successful this would have been with a separate cast. I’ve seen a couple of scenes with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, and he just didn’t have the comedic energy that Fox has. Plus, Christopher Lloyd has to the best crazy scientist ever. He’s such a master at subtlety, which makes his over-the-top character work.
Other Robert Zemeckis Movies You May Have Seen
A Christmas Carol (2009)
The Polar Express
Romancing the Stone