Some directors start their careers making one genre of movie and stick with that genre until they become masters of it (or at least good enough at it to make a long living of it). Other filmmakers jump from genre to genre, excelling at some yet never quite mastering one. But every so often a director comes along and applies his mastery of one discipline to a variety of genres with great effect … and great special effect. One such director is Robert Zemeckis.
After a pair of short films he made at the University of Southern California, Zemeckis’ first two full-length features were straight comedies. The first was 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, starring Nancy Allen. The film centers on the importance of The Beatles, during the run-up to their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, to four girls from a small town in New Jersey. The second film was 1980’s Used Cars, starring Kurt Russell, about competing used car dealerships. The film’s tagline says it all: “Estimated Laugh Count: 287 City, 410 Highway. Use these numbers only for comparison. Your actual laughs may vary depending on how you feel about used car salesmen, nude women, spectacular car stunts, and the President of the United States.” Both films, while comedic, were small in scope and feel. That style of filmmaking wouldn’t last long.
Keeping the humor but raising the stakes in terms of scope, content, and star-power, Zemeckis’ third film was the popular and successful Romancing the Stone. The film stars Michael Douglas as adventurer Jack Colton and Kathleen Turner as quiet romance novelist Joan Wilder. When Joan’s sister is kidnapped, she rushes to Colombia to trade a recently-inherited treasure map for her sibling. When things go awry, she enlists Colton’s help. The film would finish eighth for the year in US box office gross.
Zemeckis’ next film would not only finish #1 at the US box office, it would launch the film career of an American television star, become an iconic film, not only of the ‘80s but of all time, and set Zemeckis on an FX-rich path that he would continue to this day.
Back to the Future (1985) stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a teenager who finds himself transported to 1955 via a time machine fashioned out of a DeLorean by his friend, scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). When Marty inadvertently prevents his parents from meeting, he jeopardizes his own future and must connect his parents in order to get himself back … well, you know. In addition to being one of the most charming and beloved films of the ‘80s, Back to the Future greatly illustrates the next phase of Zemeckis’ directorial evolution. He began with comedy, added adventure, and then incorporated sci-fi with a flair for special effects. (Oh, and having that catchy hit from Huey Lewis and the News, The Power of Love, didn’t hurt, either.)
Many directors would be thrilled to have these four films on their career résumés, but Zemeckis was far from done. For his fifth film, he turned his attention to animation … with a twist.
Take one crazy bunny, one voluptuous moll, one hard-boiled detective, one crazy villain, and every famous cartoon character you can remember, from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny, and you have Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But this is no ordinary combination of live-action and animation, where characters merely exist together within the frame or share the occasional high five or cheek-kiss. In this ambitious three-time Oscar winner, the animated characters and the live-action characters (including Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant) live in each other’s worlds. Once again, Zemeckis proved his growing mastery of effects as he pushed his own boundaries and met with great success.
After two Back to the Future sequels (with Part III besting Part II in terms of quality), Zemeckis continued to use comedy as a vehicle to showcase his ever-improving talent with special effects skills with the 1992 film Death Becomes Her. The film, starring Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, and Goldie Hawn, is a dark comedy about an actress (Streep) and writer (Hawn) who have loathed each other for years, who fight for the affections of plastic surgeon Willis, and who find themselves addicted to a potion administered by Isabella Rossellini that promises to keep them eternally young and beautiful. While the film itself is uneven, the Oscar-winning visual effects are eye-popping, and cement Zemeckis as a master of his craft.
Then, in 1994, Zemeckis took his filmmaking to the next level, not just by directing a film to win more Oscars, but by directing a film to win both the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars (along with four others): Forrest Gump. The film, starring Tom Hanks as the title character, is based on the novel by Winston Groom. It tells the life story of a simple man with a low IQ who only ever wants to do the right thing, and only ever wants to make his mother (Sally Field) proud, and only ever wants to be with is true love, Jenny (Robin Wright). The film is mostly a drama, but still with that Zemeckis flair for humor and special effects. Throughout the film, Gump (as fictional character) finds himself in myriad situations with factual icons, such as President John F. Kennedy and musician John Lennon. The technology employed to insert Hanks-as-Gump was groundbreaking and used to excellent effect in the film.
And this is where Robert Zemeckis’ career peaked. That’s not to say that his career went downhill, rather it sustained something of a mortal level, after the seven-film winning streak he had enjoyed. Those subsequent films include further departures from comedy, but still rich with visual effects: 1997’s Contact; 2000’s Cast Away and What Lies Beneath; and a trio of animated films, 2004’s Polar Express, 2007’s Beowulf, and 2009’s A Christmas Carol.
His most recent film, the just-UK-released Flight, finds itself nominated for a pair of Oscars, including a Best Actor nod to Denzel Washington. While the film is a drama, it still has Zemeckis’ signature visual effects, here in the form of a harrowing plane crash.
While one wonders, with the FX technology available today, how successful a Zemeckis film might be if he leveraged his technical skills and returned to lighter roots. Regardless, as history forever writes the book of film, it will one day complete the chapter on Robert Zemeckis, and when it does, it is certain to remember him for his uncanny ability to use special effects to their maximum effect in films of all genres, and do so with excellence.