Back to IndieWire

Ranked: The Films Of Robert Zemeckis

Ranked: The Films Of Robert Zemeckis

Tiptoeing gingerly into theaters this week, trying not to look down, is “The Walk,” the retelling of Philippe Petit’s incredible high-wire stunt between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The story was previously told in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man On Wire,” but this new film, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, has something that the previous one didn’t: IMAX 3D technology that puts you in Petit’s shoes to dizzying, pulse-pounding effect, as our review from NYFF revealed.

It’s the latest example of director Robert Zemeckis taking state-of-the-art technology and applying it to truly popular entertainment, his stock-in-trade for 35 years now. The writer-director won a Student Academy Award for his USC film, which brought him under the tutelage of Steven Spielberg, who helped him to make his debut featureI Wanna Hold Your Hand” at the tender age of 26.

In the 1980s, Zemeckis became one of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers, with a string of hits, most notably “Back To The Future” and its sequels before winning an Oscar (one of six the film took) for megahit “Forrest Gump” in 1994. He’s most recently been famous for helping to pioneer 3D performance capture animated features with “The Polar Express” and similar pictures, but he returned to live-action with “Flight” a few years back.

With “The Walk” in IMAX theaters now before expanding wider this weekend, it seemed like the perfect time to look back on a filmmaker who, though he’s never been a household name like Spielberg, has had almost as big an impact on pop culture, with a fascinating career of ups, downs, and creepy dead CGI eyes. Below, you’ll find our verdicts on Zemeckis’ movies, ranked from worst to best. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

16. “A Christmas Carol” (2009)

You’d think that Zemeckis’ beloved motion capture technology would have gotten better —or at least more lifelike and less creepy— over time. Not so, as it turns out: his most recent performance capture 3D extravaganza, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Yuletide classic, somehow proved less realistic, more horrifying and infinitely less entertaining than the one with the Muppets. Or the Nicolas Cage-voiced animated one. Or basically all of them. Starring Jim Carrey not just as tightfisted War On Christmas-leading grump Ebenezer Scrooge, but also all three ghosts (with Gary Oldman as both Bob Cratchit and, hilariously, Tiny Tim, and with Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins in other roles), it’s in part an excuse to let Carrey off the leash. And while he’s not bad as such, it indulges some of the star’s worst instincts. The same could be said of Zemeckis, who stuffs the film with cheap, ill-fitting gags and theme-park evoking action sequences designed to show off the 3D without adding much to the story. Indeed, unlike “Beowulf” or “The Polar Express,” you know this story so well already that it’s puzzling that Zemeckis would attempt it all, especially given that he seems to have little affinity with the material. Sure, he gets the Victorian Gothic aesthetic right (which in fairness, few adaptations do), but there’s little holiday cheer at play. The film ultimately proves too close to Scrooge himself: more concerned with money than with heart.

15. “The Polar Express” (2004)

Say what you like about Zemeckis, but he is at least forward-thinking: five years before “Avatar” blew the roof off box offices worldwide, the director took advantage of performance-capture, 3D and IMAX, technologies that would soon become staples of the business, for the first of his animated trilogy, an adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 picture book. Unfortunately, the film is a technological showcase first, laden with gimmicks second and an effective movie third. The story involves a boy (named as Hero Boy in the credits, giving a clue to the film’s depth) from a perfect ’50s suburbia who boards a mysterious train that stops on his street and takes him and other children to the North Pole and to meet Santa. The technical bravado certainly proved a novelty, as was the chance to see Tom Hanks play most of the roles, but famously, the eerily dead eyes of the characters prove off-putting to an alarming degree (almost as creepy as the surprisingly fascistic overtones of Santa’s North Pole itself). More importantly, Zemeckis never finds a way to turn a 32-page storybook into a 100-minute movie, filling the film with incident but not much in the way of interest. And while the slides and trains and whatnot might have amused the young’uns at the time, it’s another Christmas film from the same time that’s endured in place of this one —the rather more modest “Elf.

14. “What Lies Beneath” (2000)

Made during the long break in the production of “Cast Away” while Tom Hanks lost weight and grew his beard, “What Lies Beneath” was seemingly intended as a sort of palate-cleanser for Zemeckis, an old-school chiller letting him indulge his inner Hitchcock. Instead, it’s rather puzzling, like an A-list director and cast lost a bet and decided to tackle one of those ropey PG-13 Screen Gems horror movies that come out in early September. Written, curiously, by actor Clark Gregg (yes, Agent Coulson from the Marvel movies), it sees Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as a well-off older couple whose marriage is put to the test when Pfeiffer’s character starts to see what may or may not be a ghost with ties to a past indiscretion of her husband’s. The two stars make an appealing pair, and Ford in particular proves to be effective against-type casting once his villainy is revealed, but bar a few bits of subtle VFX wizardry, the film looks as drab as its story, which can’t embrace its campiness to the extent that you’ll have much fun. There are moments of atmosphere, but ultimately Zemeckis proves all too reliant on the kind of jump scares that most direct-to-video horror helmers would turn their noses up at, and the wonky supernatural mythology makes it difficult to build up the kind of Hitchcockian suspense that the director’s after. Ultimately, it feels tossed off more than anything.

13. “Beowulf” (2007)

For those amongst us who spent English class daydreaming about what the reputed epic Olde English poem “Beowulf” would look like on the big screen, the answer is… not quite what Robert Zemeckis had in mind when he took the story to the cineplexes worldwide back in 2007. The director’s mammoth, lumbering, fanboy-friendly animated 3D re-jiggering of the Geatish warrior’s fearsome exploits is about as far away from “traditional” notions as one can get. And no, that doesn’t exactly mean the film is good —the CGI is often noticeably artificial, the accents are all over the map and the delicacy and grace of the original text are mostly lost in the muddle. And yet, compared to the stiff and lifeless “The Polar Express” and the just-plain-agonizing “A Christmas Carol,” this film certainly ranks as the most enjoyable animated effort from the director. Ray Winstone lends his signature gravelly baritone to the title role, (the disparity between our CGI hero’s chiseled physique and Winstone’s more bearish frame is also more than a little distracting) while Zemeckis finds his ideal Grendel in the form of his “Back to the Future” star and everyone’s favorite world-class weirdo Crispin Glover. Angelina Jolie also vamps it up as the monster’s mother, because… of course she does! The whole thing is more silly than awe-inspiring, but considering the staggering ambition of the undertaking, it feels unfair to label the film as an outright dud. Instead, it’s a big, dumb, brash Hollywood re-fashioning of an enduring English literary classic, as well as a showcase for Zemeckis the whiz-kid to do like his hero and flex his muscles in the animated realm.

12. “Forrest Gump” (1994)

Here it is, folks. The movie that famously robbed “Pulp Fiction” of the Oscar many feel it deserved, turned “life is like a box of chocolates” into a nationally-recognized catchphrase and firmly established Zemeckis as a director who could actually win awards. So how does it play after all these years? A hymn to the essential goodness of a slow-witted Alabama man (Tom Hanks) who, through some serendipitous twists of fate, ends up bearing witness to many of the 20th century’s most significant cultural and political events, it’s an odd, bittersweet riff on the American-style epic. But while “Gump” undeniably struck a nerve in the culture of 1994, it doesn’t play nearly as well today. Large chunks of the film feel grossly oversimplified and occasionally just plain wrongheaded —particularly in the film’s naïve and ultimately troubling depiction of racism and the mid-century war machine, as well as its Wikipedia bullet-point approach to history itself. Hanks is warm and appealing, but then, he usually is. The role may have won him an Oscar (his second in two years) but frankly, he can do this sort of thing in his sleep. The fact remains that Forrest, for all his essential innocence, isn’t a particularly interesting character, and that it has very little to do with his intelligence. Perhaps choosing this simpleton as our guide through the rockier passages of American history is supposed to be some sort of loaded political statement, but given Forrest’s wholly reactionary, idiot-savant persona, we really hope not. Twenty-one years later, “Forrest Gump” remains a puzzling anomaly: it is certainly Zemeckis’ most financially successful picture and is unquestionably his most overrated, though whether it quite deserves to be the cinephile punching-bag it has become of late is another question.

11. “Flight” (2012)

While many have heralded 2012’s grimly serious “Flight” as a return of sorts to the inherent humanism that always lay at the heart of Zemeckis’s best work, the Denzel Washington-starring drama is ultimately too problematic to properly classify as a comeback. The story is that of African-American airline pilot Whip Whitaker and his struggles with substance abuse, (indeed, there’s nothing like a little Colombian marching powder with your vodka and OJ to get you up and kicking in the morning), after he miraculously saves a plane full of people with a daring manoeuvre while still off his face. “Flight” is satisfying enough on basic storytelling terms, but the film is plagued with issues, particularly in regards to character and continuity. Poor Kelly Reilly, who was asked to do little more than sulk and strut on this abysmal last season of “True Detective”, struggles to make the most of a thinly-written part as a recovering heroin/meth addict who finds herself drawn into Whip’s increasingly bleak downward spiral. John Goodman, meanwhile, plays a good-time drug dealer and an old friend of Whip’s who you know is bad news because the filmmakers feel the need to loudly announce his scenes by playing “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Stones (it also makes an annoyingly obvious use of Cream’s “White Room,” go figure). The actors certainly give it their all and an Oscar-nominated Washington is, as always, fiercely committed. And yet a film that sets out to tackle such heavy thematic material as grief, drug dependency and self-loathing should ultimately exhibit a more nimble directorial sleight-of-hand than Zemeckis has on display here.

10. “Death Becomes Her” (1992)

We’ve tried so hard to get our heads around the reclamation attempts made for this film that we ended up looking like Meryl Streep with her face on backwards  but to no avail. With the greatest of respect to those commenters who continually maintain what a comedic goldmine this film is, it remains to us a ghoulishly unfunny and quite ugly-looking thin pastiche, the unfortunate epitome of an extremely dated early-’90s aesthetic. Famously the recipient of some dreadful test screening results, which led to long after the fact reshoots (and it looks compromised as a result, never entirely sure what kind of film it’s trying to be), the target of its satire is certainly a ripe one: Hollywood’s obsession with youth and beauty, especially of the feminine kind. Streep stars alongside Goldie Hawn as two image-obsessed frenemies, offered the secret to eternal youth by a magnificently-styled Satanic Isabella Rossellini (appropriately enough, she may be the only thing not to have aged poorly in this film), but who go on to prove that while youth may be wasted on the young, it’s even more so on the middle-aged. Bruce Willis turns in another of a string of overwhelmed early-’90s performances, though it does feel at least like he and Hawn are in the same kitschy flick. As for Streep, who has proved her comic chops elsewhere, it’s not that she’s bad, of course, but she may very well be too good for this material: this is a film in which performance is less important than putty.

9. “Used Cars” (1980)

The in-your face wackiness of Zemeckis’ second feature, again produced by Steven Spielberg, with John Milius along for the ride this time, took a detour away from the sweetness that would become the director’s stock in trade (and that even his first feature, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” had demonstrated.) Instead, here we get zany hijinks with a kind of nasty edge, as Kurt Russell’s slick amoral car salesman/wannabe politico grifts and cons his way to the top of the heap and into the heart of uninteresting love interest Deborah Harmon. The ever reliable Jack Warden does provide some memorable moments, although the conceit of him playing rival car-lot-owning brothers is somewhat wasted by having one of them die early on  which cues up a lot of corpse-related shenanigans when his estranged daughter (Harmon) returns to town and Russell can’t tell her her Dad’s dead because of farce reasons. There’s a wide streak of misogyny that feels broad even for a 1980s T&A comedy (the botched commercial they shoot in which a screaming model has her clothes ripped off and her bare breasts mauled feels particularly icky), but the film seems to believe it’s a lot of good clean fun and nearly squeaks by on that self-belief alone. In fact, it apparently got the highest-ever test audience scores for a Columbia picture to that date, yet somehow went on to fizzle right out at the box office. Coming after the commercial disappointment of his debut and the bomb that was Spielberg’s “1941,” which Zemeckis co-wrote, the underperformance of “Used Cars” saw the writer/director lumbered with the reputation for writing scripts everyone loved that somehow translated into films no one wanted to see.

8. “Back To The Future Part III” (1990)

Fans of the franchise have been arguing for 25 years over which of Zemeckis’ sequels to his time-travel classic is superior, or at least over which of them holds up less poorly to the original. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but we ultimately favor the convoluted time-hopping second movie over the back-to-basics, Old West trilogy-closer. Filmed back-to-back with its predecessor, and picking up from the previous film’s cliffhanger, it sees Marty (Michael J. Fox) travel back to 1885, where Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has been trapped, in order to save him from Biff’s great-grandfather (Thomas Wilson) and return him to the present. The film certainly has a more streamlined narrative than its predecessor, and Zemeckis’ usual eye for a set piece is fully intact (the train sequence near the end is excellent), but it’s arguably a little too streamlined, coming as across as a bit of a retread of the original, minus the charm. In fact, rather less than that: there’s little of the cleverness of the original’s screenplay, and too often (as occasionally with “Part II”), the film goes back to the well of a callback to the original, at the expense of an actual joke. Still, Fox and Lloyd are as charming a pair as ever, Wilson reminds you that he might be the stealth MVP of the series, Mary Steenburgen makes a fine addition as Doc’s love interest, and it’s still good-natured and sweet enough that it never comes across as a cynical cash grab.

7. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1978)

Foreshadowing “Forrest Gump“‘s splicing of a fictional character into real-life history, and even occasionally using archive footage to bolster the “authenticity,” Zemeckis’ first film is actually a pretty decent, if terminally slight comedy lampooning the excesses of Beatlemania. Set in the run-up to the Fab Four’s first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” the film follows a gaggle of swooning, shrieking, sighing Beatles obsessives from New Jersey as they beg, borrow, and steal their way to New York and into the hotel where John, Paul, Ringo and George (only ever seen in long shots or with their backs turned) are staying. It’s terminally frothy and not a little shrill at times, with well-worn “hotel comedy” gags abounding: people get stuck in lifts, hide in room service trollies, duck into broom closets, and disguise themselves as bellboys (“Some Like It Hot” has a lot to answer for). But it’s good humored enough, and the young, largely female cast are appealing, particularly the busybody uberfan played by Wendie Jo Sperber (Marty’s sister from “Back to the Future“) and the quieter homebody played by Nancy Allen, who has a great way of suggesting her character’s borderline-orgasmic response to touching Paul McCartney‘s hairbush without ever being crude. “Raging Bull“‘s Theresa Saldana and Mark McClure (Jimmy Olsen in the ‘Superman‘ films and Marty McFly’s brother) also appear, as does Paul Newman‘s daughter Susan Kendall Newman in one of her only film roles.

6. “Contact” (1997)

After the unprecedented success, even by his standards, of “Forrest Gump,” Zemeckis headed to the cosmos for an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel, a reasonably serious, realistic look at the first encounters between mankind and an alien civilization, and the face-off between science and faith. Jodie Foster takes the lead role as Ellie Arroway, a driven scientist who discovers a signal from a distant star with instructions on how to build a galaxy-crossing transport, with Matthew McConaughey (nearly two decades before “Interstellar,” a film which shares more than a little DNA with “Contact”) as her Christian philosopher love interest, and a strong cast that includes James Woods, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, William Fichtner, and Tom Skeritt. Sprawling and novelistic, it’s one of the most ambitious movies of an ambitious career for the director, and sometimes lives up to its potential: in its earliest days, it’s a thrillingly plausible look at what would happen if extraterrestrial life really did make contact, and Foster gives one of her best performances in the lead role. By the end, it’s gone on too many tangents that don’t pay off (John Hurt, as an eccentric billionaire, is a fun performance that could be removed from the film entirely without harming it), and the conclusion ends up sinking into New Age-y sentiment. But its rougher edges can be forgiven for the sheer scope and sincerity of a film that’s well worth reappraisal.

5. “Romancing The Stone” (1984)

One of the few films to follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones with any degree of success, and Zemeckis’ first big box-office hit, “Romancing The Stone” is a little neglected now among the director’s pictures, but it remains one of his most purely enjoyable outings. Penned by Diane Thomas (who was working as a waitress when the movie sold: sadly, she died in a car crash just two years later), the film stars Kathleen Turner, in a 180 from her breakout in “Body Heat,” as Joan, a mousy, lonely romance novelist who heads to Colombia in search of her kidnapped sister, teaming her up with treasure seeker Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), and pitting her against not just the kidnappers (Danny DeVito and Zack Norman), but also a sinister military man (Manuel Ojeda oddly, the drug dealer, played by filmmaker Alfonso Arua, is a good guy, one of the clearest indicators of how much ’80s filmmakers liked cocaine. Like “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” it’s a movie taking its cues from cinema history, but less from classic serials and more from screwball comedy, mixed with a little “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” but brought to life with Zemeckis’ fresh filmmaking chops, which are more confident here than with his earlier pictures. The studio had little faith in the film during production (indeed, Zemeckis was meant to direct “Cocoon,” but was replaced with Ron Howard after the studio saw the first cut of ‘Romancing’), but it works far better than it has any right to: Thomas’ script is slickly plotted and sparkily funny, the chemistry between the leads sizzles, and the action’s consistently entertaining. Just avoid the lukewarm sequel, “The Jewel Of The Nile.”

4. “Back to the Future Part II” (1989)

Here at The Playlist, we pride ourselves on our ability to reach a consensus. And by consensus we mean a definitive conclusion to an argument, which happens due to boredom or people having to go to bed in other time zones. Still, it means we are mostly fairly harmonious, and yet in this Eden of agreement there is a single Serpent, and the name of that unresolved, ever contentious film? “Back to the Future II.” Which is why every time it crops up in a list I (Jess) swoop in to claim it: I think it’s absolutely brilliant. At the time it was regarded as overly complicated (presumably by people who cannot follow the literal two-line chalkboard diagram Doc Brown uses to explain the “alternate 1984” thing), but surely now that we’re all so versed in the idea of multiverses it’s revealed as actually quite far ahead of its time (!). It’s also the only ‘BTTF’ film that goes to the actual future (which will arrive in just 20 days time, apparently), and frankly, if you invented a Time Machine, would you really use it primarily to visit your mom when she was young, to get some crazy old coot an old-timey girlfriend, or would you go forward in time? It’s by far the most ambitious of the trilogy, requiring world-creation rather than recreation from Zemeckis, and if it doesn’t have the warmheartedness that makes the first film such an enduring classic, it has enough wit, invention, and even satire to make it damn near as smart.

3. “Cast Away” (2000)

No one needs to point out that Robert Zemeckis understands the power of spectacle, nor would they have any reason to doubt the director’s capacity to wow an audience. Yet every couple of years, Zemeckis quietly makes a film that reminds us that he can also deliver an honest-to-god emotional powerhouse for the multiplex crowd. These are the films where the director channels his showier tendencies and aims straight for the heart. He recently reverted to this more human mode of storytelling in his uneven, inexplicably Oscar-nominated “Flight,” but for our money, his 2000 survival story “Cast Away” is his most emotionally lacerating and powerful picture. The film also reunites the director with his All-American leading man Tom Hanks, who is a long way from the simple-minded namesake hero of “Forrest Gump” here. Those who have seen the film and are familiar with its central narrative conceit (dude gets stranded on an island after a horrific crash, reverts to primitivism, finds happiness and himself, etc.) know that Hanks is essentially putting on a one-man show here. And it’s a magnificent turn: quietly heartbreaking and teeming with layers of humanity, it is practically impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. Who can forget his funny, sad, and bizarre scenes with his island friend Wilson, in what is surely the most touching performance ever given by a piece of sports equipment? “Cast Away” is ultimately a dazzling fusion of everything that makes Zemeckis an indispensable creative force: his effortless command of the visual medium, his fine way with actors, and, perhaps most importantly, his unyielding belief in our own ingenuity and the value of our spirit and will to survive. Like its hero, “Cast Away” endures. It’s one of the director’s most mature, moving, and well-made films.

2. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988)

It’s a film that probably shouldn’t have ever gotten made. A film that brought together classic cartoon characters from Disney, Looney Tunes, and plentiful other sources, and added in the star of several classic Brit gangster flicks and a long-running series of TV commercials for British Telecom. A family movie that was also a surprisingly effective “Chinatown”-esque noir. A picture melding live-action and animation like nothing that had come before. A big-budget extravaganza that starred the rather unlikely figure of Bob Hoskins. But thank Toontown it did get made, because the film remains one of the best blockbusters of the 1980s, and, aside from the obvious one, the clear high point of Zemeckis’ career. Opening with a bravura Tom & Jerry-ish short before revealing that we’re actually on a movie set where the titular Roger (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is the star, we’re soon thrust into a complex mystery in a world where humans live side-by-side with 2D animations, and toon-hating PI Eddie Valiant (Hoskins, who does so much to sell the reality of the effects) has to help the rabbit beat a murder rap and reunite with his wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner, thrusting much of the young audience into early puberty). It’s incredibly inventive, funny stuff, overwhelmed with a love for classic cartoons, while also spinning a genuinely involving plot that isn’t afraid to go into darker territory, and somehow uniting the two seemingly opposite tones. And unlike other visual effects showcases from years past, it hasn’t aged a day, and hasn’t (yet) had its memory tarnished with sequels and reboots, which makes it all the more cherishable.

1. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Sometimes getting older is just the worst, but then you get to remember that you’re part of the “Back To The Future” era and it doesn’t really feel that bad anymore. Simply one of the best high-concept, adventure-comedy mashups ever made (rivalled only by the previous year’s “Ghostbusters” in those stakes) it’s the rare childhood classic that absolutely stands the test of time (sorry, but the time puns just won’t stop). The deliriously inventive story of young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, defining a generation), and his inexplicable friendship with crazy old Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who has just converted a DeLorean into a time machine, the film changes gears about twelve times throughout but somehow never shifts down. Brilliantly negotiating the ooginess of the potential incest subplot (seriously, how many films this uncomplicatedly enjoyable have a mom hitting on her own son?), as 1950s Marty saves Doc, repairs his 1980s crummy life, improves his parents’ marriage, bests bad guy Biff, and invents rock ‘n’ roll, it’s really the apotheosis of everything Zemeckis can do as both a writer and a director. Snappy, knowing dialogue, delivered by career-best actors who are entirely in on the joke and yet completely committed to their ludicrous situations, coupled with truly exciting set pieces that careen from one high point to another, it truly feels that with “Back To the Future,” the lightning rod of Zemeckis’ populism was finally struck with a bolt from the sky  1.21 gigawatts of pure popcorn joy.

Honorable Mentions: If you wanted to be an absolute Zemeckis completist, you could also check out, among others, Spielberg’s “1941,” which he co-wrote, and Walter Hill’s “Trespass,” which he has an unlikely screenplay credit on. He also helmed an episode of Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” show, and installments of “Johnny Bago,” “Two-Fisted Tales,” and “Tales From The Crypt,” which he was a producer on. And as some form of producer, he was involved in not just the various “Tales From The Crypt” franchise, but also 1992’s “The Public Eye,” Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners”; various movies from his Dark Castle horror line with Joel Silver, including “House On Haunted Hill,” “Thir13en Ghosts,” “Ghost Ship,” “House Of Wax” and “Gothika”; performance capture animations “Monster House” (which is great) and “Mars Needs Moms” (which isn’t); and most recently, the Hugh Jackman robot boxing movie “Real Steel.” Next up? An untitled World War Two romance penned by “Peaky Blinders” creator Steven Knight, and starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard .

– Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox