To say that Robert Zemeckis is a gifted artist of both script and screen would be a significant understatement — the creator of cultural icons such as Marty McFly, Forrest Gump, and Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis has cultivated an unforgettable collection of cinematic monuments, each of them widening the visual field of what is possible in movies and captivating audiences worldwide in the process.
His most popular films have achieved such rousing success, however, that significant consequences have developed. As a pioneer in the expansion of special effects and computer graphics in narrative film, Zemeckis has often been pigeonholed as a director not of films with rich thematic material and character development, but of simple, spectacle-driven animation. Thanks to its seamless infusion into mass popular culture, Back to the Future is no longer a story of a boy exploring his relationship with his own family across time — it’s a movie with “cool chase scenes and a few explosions.” (My roommate actually said this, and she’s not alone.) Regardless of the constricting critiques of Zemeckis’ apparent creative limitations, his films (perhaps most prominently Back to the Future itself) have come to be adored by countless people. Some have been idolized by so many for so long, in fact, that they have been placed on an idyllic pedestal of sorts, for all to admire but none to seriously examine. Wildly popular though they were and continue to be, Zemeckis’ most iconic films are thereby shuttered from any real discussion—they’re just sort of there, calcified as objects of widespread cultural appreciation and not much else.
Given all this, it’s both intriguing and encouraging that Zemeckis would be offered a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The first of its kind, the series offers a spectrum of Zemeckis films, a necessary spread to fully appreciate the variety of talents he possesses. With the major blockbusters of his time (think Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the Back to the Future trilogy) comes a plethora of his lesser known works, full of his signature visual effects and scriptural wit, but devoid of the banality and narrative carelessness one might hastily–if understandably–associate with massive blockbusters. These films, such as the 1992 dark comedy Death Becomes Her, provide a context for the director’s consistent style—as well as that style’s consistent variability.
Death Becomes Her tells the tale of novelist Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) losing her fiancé to her close friend, movie star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep). Completely destroyed by the break-up, we find Sharp in a mental ward seven whole years after the event, plotting revenge against her recently sworn enemy. Faking her own mental recovery, she takes control over her life once again and returns to Beverly Hills, where her ex-fiancé, Ernest Menville (played by an almost unrecognizable Bruce Willis), and Ashton reside. From there, complete madness ensues–in desperate competition with one another, they go to incredible lengths to maintain their youthful stature, including drinking an immortality potion brewed up by the mystical Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). Murders are plotted, parties thrown, surgeries undergone; the campy absurdity of the plot was a first for Zemeckis at the time of the film’s release, which, after the family friendly sci-fi of the Back to the Future trilogy a few years prior, wasn’t what the critics wanted to see. Regardless, the gamble he took with genre and form demonstrated his uncommon ability to work in different styles and still maintain his notably progressive visual style (mixed reviews aside, the film did win an Academy Award for Visual Effects). Even Zemeckis’ apparent “missteps” have, with time, revealed his ceaseless creative spark, his insistence on turning the stuff of bland blockbusters into visual experiences that are shocking, thrilling, and above all genuinely engrossing. This retrospective as such thoroughly justifies Zemeckis’ place in the circle of renowned directors of our generation — a justification that is long overdue.
What Lies Beneath: The Films of Robert Zemeckis ran at the MoMA through October 18th. Zemeckis’ latest release, The Walk, is also currently playing in theaters across New York City.