Robert Zemeckis Retrospective

From Oxford Town 204, July 10, 1997 as a companion to the Contact review.



 - A Retrospective -


In jazz, a distinction is often made between those that simply have great "chops" (advanced technical proficiency) and those rare, true musicians who view technique as simply another tool used to communicate with their audience. Many film directors today possess great chops, but are unable to tell a cohesive, emotionally engrossing story because they are so enamored with the bells and whistles of their high-tech toys that they forget that story and character are what matter most. Few working in Hollywood can match the sheer technical bravura of Robert Zemeckis, and even fewer possess the acumen and maturity necessary to allow this near-unrivaled ability to manipulate visual imagery to never overshadow their goal -- a connection with his audience.


The following is a sample of Zemeckis' best-known films as a director.


USED CARS - Kurt Russell shines through a great cast in this hilariously crude tale of love and deception set among the unscrupulous would of car salesmen. The script (written by Zemeckis and his long-time writing partner Bob Gale) is fast and furious and at times howlingly funny.


ROMANCING THE STONE - Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito (in one of his funniest roles ever) romp through the jungles of Colombia in this superbly-paced lark about a reserved romance novelist and a modern-day treasure hunter. Cinematic proof that action/adventure film can incorporate smart, funny, and strong female characters and survive nicely.


BACK TO THE FUTURE - One of the best rides you'll ever take. Constantly inventive, unpredictable, and always good-natured, this time-travel comedy with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd (in one of his most memorable roles) never lets up and never fails to entertain. The only question is, how did Zemeckis get Crispin Glover to act so normal?


BACK TO THE FUTURE II - A seamless continuation of the first film, as well as a perfect illustration of how Zemeckis never allows his visual effects (Fox interacting with himself and his descendants around the dinner table, for example) to overshadow the flow of action or narrative. The cliffhanger ending is also a great, matinee-like touch.


BACK TO THE FUTURE III - The third installment is set almost entirely in the Old West. Despite a somewhat drawn-out ending sequence, a good capper to the trilogy.


WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? - Although hailed for its groundbreaking and stunningly seamless blend of live action and animation in 1988, what is most telling about this film is Zemeckis' ability to imbue his "cartoon characters" with more charm, personality, and depth than most humans exhibit in an entire summer's worth of films. A loving tribute to the art and history of film animation that works on all levels.


DEATH BECOMES HER - In this parable about modern artifice, Bruce Willis is an LA plastic surgeon caught in the crossfire between two vain, shallow women who have discovered the secret of immortality and are hell-bent on preventing the other's survival. Darkly funny in places, the film doesn't always succeed, but watching Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep try to destroy each other's supernaturally enhanced bodies with gleeful shrewishness (replete with some truly memorable sight gags from ILM) makes it worthwhile.


FORREST GUMP - Despite Oscars for Best Film and Best Director, some critics felt this work was too manipulative and "feel-good"ish, and they may have a point. Gump is one of the slickest films you'll ever see, but in the end it connected with audiences in much the same manner that Frank Capra's films did. It proves that a message grounded in emotional truth resonates, no matter how artful (or in some cases artificial) the packaging.