Robert Zemeckis has received a lot of attention this month: His new film, “The Walk,” opened this year’s New York Film Festival and his entire 40-year filmography is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. But his legacy isn’t so easy to parse: Few directors handle visceral thrills with as much elation and control, and fewer still have pushed the threshold of visual effects as far as Zemeckis has — yet his films present troubling ideas about American culture.
“The Walk” depicts the bewildering theatrics of legendary wire-walker Phillipe Petit, who strung a cable between New York’s Twin Towers and sauntered between them while hundreds of New Yorkers looked on from 110 stories below. The film, like its non-fiction predecessor “Man on Wire,” plays like a Jean Pierre-Melville heist movie before metamorphosing into something more majestic. Petit is dogged in chasing his dream. This romantic notion of an individual utterly devoid of irony, who bridges impossible chasms with technology and captures a certain ethos of modern America, resembles Zemeckis’s approach to the filmmaking process: Time and again, Zemeckis blends modern technology with old-school Hollywood storytelling and vintage aesthetics.
Zemeckis’s entire oeuvre explores the idea of the past retrofitted, a concept embodied by the iconic “Back to the Future” conceit of an old DeLorean festooned with jet boosters and a time machine. That trilogy epitomizes his fixations almost too well. The first “Back to the Future” contains a sense of wonder and awe that can stand toe-to-toe with Spielberg’s best, as well as the histrionic sensibilities of Golden Age Hollywood. The Reagan Era produced few films as agreeable, and as innocent.
Zemeckis souses his penchant for spectacle with playfulness. His directorial debut, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” while lots of fun, doesn’t feel quite like a Zemeckis film; for all its nostalgia, the movie is permeated by a sharp sense of irony that doesn’t surface in any of his subsequent films, though its use of Beatles songs foreshadows the way he’d later use pop-infused soundtracks to situate (and saturate) his films in specific places and times. “Used Cars,” which stars a young Kurt Russell, displays a cryptic sense of humor that later pops up in the “Back to the Future” films, as well as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Forrest Gump.” It also marks the first instance of an ongoing obsession: Zemeckis’ affinity for machinery and mechanics; what mechanical apparatus symbolizes modern American better than cars?
Vessels of varying sizes and substances, from state-of-the-art spaceships to rafts made out of sticks, play integral roles in almost all of his films, often as a means of self-realization: the DeLorean in the first two “Back to the Future” films and the locomotive in part three; the buses and trollies and encroaching freeway system in “Roger Rabbit”; the car that chases Forrest, and spurs him to run, as well as the boat on which Lieutenant Dan finds peace with God in “Forrest Gump”; space shuttles in “Contact”; a serious car accident that sets the stage for “What Lies Beneath”; the plane that crashes in “Cast Away” and the plane that doesn’t in “Flight”; the title train of “The Polar Express.” Not only does Zemeckis use technology to create his films; they set the stories in motion.
In a broader sense, technology itself is a recurring character in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The climactic, vertigo-inducing gait to which the title of “The Walk” refers unfolds as a technical marvel, a feat of pure (and fairly sentimental) cinema that could not exist – at least not in any watchable form – without Zemeckis’ prodigious use of CGI. The wire walking scene is a return to form for the director, after he spent most of the aughts playing with motion-capture, an unnerving form of highly detailed animation that’s frequently creepier than anything in “What Lies Beneath.”
From 1984 to 1990, Zemeckis treated special effects as a crucial element in his storytelling process. Look at his reigning masterpiece, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” a bizarre bastard of a movie whose commingling of cartoons and live-action retains the sublime charms it offered in 1988. At once a paranoid noir in the same vein as “Chinatown” and an animation extravaganza (Richard Williams, the genius behind the ineffably gorgeous “The Thief and the Cobbler,” oversaw the animation), it delves deeper, and more darkly, into American ennui than any other Zemeckis film.
It takes place in Los Angeles circa 1947, the apex for American animation and the star-studded Hollywood movie system, right before Howard Hughes helped break up RKO pictures. In Zemeckis’ L.A., cartoon characters and humans co-exist in the real world, with the toons coming from a neighborhood called, aptly enough, Toon Town. The exchanges between corporeal and animated characters never fails to convince, something the film’s ersatz imitators (most egregiously, “Cool World”) couldn’t manage. Zemeckis keeps unearthing organic ways to make the cartoons impact the world around them, giving them weight by having them knocking over furniture, splashing water, opening doors, and so on. He literally brought popular culture to life — which gets to the essence of his filmmaking talent.
Zemeckis’s most important contribution to American pop culture is also his most polarizing one. It became fashionable to hate Zemeckis on March 27, 1995, when he won best director at the Academy Awards for his tear-jerk claptrap “Forrest Gump,” beating Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” It’s true that Zemeckis’ movie features plenty of emotional manipulation and countless irritating phrases readymade for assimilation into the pop-culture lexicon, but it’s not as dismissible as so many have claimed. Nearly impossible to view with fresh eyes decades later, it’s nevertheless one of the most significant mainstream movies about American history during the latter half of the 20th century. It laments the shifting sentiments of baby boomers (who made it the highest-grossing best picture winner ever at that point), and also showcases Zemeckis’s preternatural gift for playful spectacle.
Zemeckis directs Eric Roth’s regressive schmaltz with a lyrical eye, and his use of classic effects – match-cuts, fades, forced perspective – have undeniable charm. The then-remarkable use of CGI to splice Forrest into historical footage and hew Gary Sinise’s legs off worked so well because Zemeckis buttressed it with old-fashioned movie-making prowess.
When Sinise falls off of his wheelchair while yelling at hookers (what a ridiculous sentence), Zemeckis engenders a brief emotional wallop by revealing Sinise sans legs. That shot hits its mark and is only possible due to CGI. It’s little touches like that make Zemeckis’ grandeur different from his lesser contemporaries. (The “Back to the Future” films are abounding with such technical bravura.) Zemeckis spent the better part of the aughts making effects-riddled movies, but with “Forrest Gump” he used special effects to tell a genuine story, something to which he returns with “The Walk.”
After the monumental success of “Forrest Gump,” Zemeckis went astral with “Contact,” which feels like a far more personal venture for the director. It’s a film with vast, sprawling ambitions that has somehow become lost within his body of work. Written but Carl Sagan, the film is arguably the quintessential embodiment of Zemeckis’s recurring themes, a special effects parade full of cosmic mysteries and ineffable occurrences that clash with hard science.
For someone obsessed with technology, Zemeckis suffuses most of his films with fantasy and superstition, science mixed with fiction. Even “The Walk” has at least one moment of inexplicable and unexplainable mystery, with a stranger appearing on the roof near the end, gazing off at the cityscape like Nietzsche into the abyss.
Perusing his 40 years of work, one can’t help but feel a bit awed at the blend of accomplishments and disappointments that define Zemeckis’ career. After the relatively sparse approach of “Cast Away,” he had his unfortunate fling with motion capture, which has since been discontinued by Disney — for mostly good reasons. “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol” embody many of Zemeckis’ recurring focuses – classical stories rendered modern via technology and acerbic, often violent senses of humor; the past drudged up and subsequently slain; men going on journeys to self-realization.
But even the clumsy animation — think of those dead eyes! Anthony Hopkins’ slimy-smooth skin! — represents an attempt at pushing movie technology forward. Zemeckis, like his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, has woven himself into the annals of film history through the persistence of his vision. If nothing else, he remains the only filmmaker who has made his viewers develop an emotional attachment to a volley ball — only to take the ball away and drown it. And that’s one special effect that required no computers.