Analysis on the Filmography Evolution of Robert Zemeckis

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“Life is a box full of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you’re going to get.” The same can be said for the filmography of Robert Zemeckis, the very director of Forrest Gump. Over the span of 46 years, he’s gone through multiple genres, jumping from story to story without any clear pattern. If one were to look at his more recent films, their stories are a far cry from what he had been doing in the 1980s. Even his most successful films are incredibly different from one another, with no clear trademark style to trace back to the director himself.

While he has become renowned for his ability to integrate special effects into the stories he chooses to tell, not many consider his works to be incredibly noteworthy or interesting, seeing as they tend to lack in any distinct style or consistent theme. When being questioned about his films, he had even said that “ …the last thing that any filmmaker or artist can do is to try to figure out why they select certain movies that they make” (Masters par. 27). Even though this may be the case, there is no denying that Zemeckis is a very versatile director. He has a very impressive filmography, which does deserve attention, considering the many decades he has spent in the career. Thus, this essay will discuss how after having built a name for himself via pop culture films, Zemeckis now delves into more complex drama with moral ambiguity, while still adhering to his continuous interest in innovative special effects. This can be attributed to the shift for audience preferences when it comes to external black-and-white conflict versus internal and complex conflicts, along with his own development as a director.

Evolution of His Filmography

If one were to look back at the first few films Zemeckis had directed (1978-1980), they had not really gained the attention of the audience. I Want To Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, were not bad, per se, but they didn’t really do well in terms of box office. While they may have had different plots and catered to different audiences, both were still comedic, discussing the lives of realistic characters while adding unrealistic drama into their stories. In terms of plot, there did not seem to be anything that might interest audiences to watch. Comedy was a big aspect in his first few films, but sometimes, it simply is not enough to catch the attention of an audience. Other than aiming for a good laugh, they left much to be desired, considering how the popular films during this time, like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Shining (1980), were more focused on amazing or shocking viewers and leaving them on the edges of their seats.

During the next decade (1980-1990), however, he finally made a name for himself when he came out with his breakthrough film, Romancing in the Stone (1984) , before forever implanting himself in history with the Back to the Future Series (1985-1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) . Unlike his first films, his work during the 1980’s struck gold with the general audience, seeing as they were a lot more fantastical and adventure-packed. While they were still quite comedic, there was more to the plot than just witty jokes and funny scenes.

Additionally, being a generally fun adventure-filled film, it caters to a wider range of viewers, as opposed to the dark comedy of Used Cars or the teen-oriented plot of I Want To Hold Your Hand. While his films are still questionable in terms of whether they really are appropriate for general audiences, the adventure genre of both Romancing the Stone and Back To The Future, along with the usage of cartoons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, made his filmography during this decade a lot more consumable for the viewers. The appearances of very famous cartoons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and his fantastic action-filled plot revolving around time travel, also helped win the hearts of many viewers, out of sheer sentimentality for said cartoons and the popularity of sci-fi during the time. In fact, Back To The Future had pretty much immortalized him in history, with how iconic it has become in popular culture.

In the second decade of his career (1990-2000), his films began to take a more serious or darker tone. This is the decade where he slowly steps back from comedy and goes into more drama-filled plots. Towards the first half of the decade, his films still hold on to some semblance of humor. Death Becomes Her (1992) and Forrest Gump (1994) are still quite funny, but their sense of humor underlies darker storylines. However, the comedy seems to fade all-together in Contact (1997), What Lies Beneath (2000) and Cast Away (2000). Now a lot more anxiety-inducing, there is not as much space for humor towards the latter half of the decade. Still, despite the gradual step away from comedy, this is also arguably one of his most successful decades, having left the 20th century with multiple awards to his name for Forrest Gump. And with how films in this decade were still intended for a wide array of audiences, it left just as big of an impact.

From 2000 to 2010, he suddenly comes out with a series of slightly less successful motion-capture films, that point to his interest in special effects once more. Despite the storylines of Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009) already having names for themselves, there is an issue with the use of motion capture in films. Because the stories Zemeckis tried to portray focused around human or human-like characters, he had to adhere to the facial expressions and features of the characters. It is this very resemblance that puts people off, seeing as it is just different enough to unnerve people. According to Heritage, “the defining aspect of a motion capture film is that, at last, it enables every character to have truly lifeless eyes. A film about a train driver who doles out creepy advice to children all day, The Polar Express led the way” (par. 1). Despite this criticism, however, Zemeckis does deserve credit for deciding to delve into such difficult effects, considering how he chose to invest in it despite already having an assured formula for making successful films.

His most recent decade (2010-2018), however, is the most different of all his films so far. Unlike his previous works, they aren’t as black-and-white in terms of conflict. In fact, it’s the complexity in the conflict that seems to be one of the only similarities between his films now. Flight (2012) talks about a pilot with addiction issues, who despite saving almost everyone from what should’ve been a devastating crash, faces the law when someone discovers alcohol on the remnants of the plane. He is forced to either take the name of a hero at the cost of his dead crewmates or serve his time but appease his guilt. In The Walk (2015), a tightrope artist tries to perform a seemingly impossible and very dangerous stunt in the name of passion and dreams.

Here, there is a clear question as to whether what they are doing is truly worth it, considering the main character’s life is at stake. Allied (2016) dives into the action-packed love story of two married former spies, with Max Vatan beginning to question the loyalty of his wife along with his own for his country. But it is his most recent movie that is unlike any of this decade, being a mix of motion-capture animation and live-action. Welcome to Marwen (2018) shows the story of a man coping with PTSD, and his ability to come forward to face them in court and move past his trauma.

Moral Ambiguity and Internal Conflict

As previously mentioned, the conflict in his latest decade of films is a lot more complex. In his previous films, he usually provided outright antagonists to create the drama, all the while clearly foreshadowing a satisfying resolution through their defeat. As seen in Back To The Future, the antagonist in the story is clearly the bully-stereotype, Biff Tanen, and with his character comes an expectation that Marty McFly’s confrontation with him is imminent.

Additionally, Zemeckis would sometimes even provide multiple antagonists in order to add more complications and drama to the story. His film, W ho Framed Roger Rabbit? had both Judge Doom and his Toon Patrol team to fight Eddie Valliant and Roger Rabbit. However, in films like Flight, it is Whip Whitaker, the supposed protagonist, who is building tension when trying to do the right thing. Even Max Vatan in Allied is forced to choose between his country or his family when he finally discovers that his wife had never been the real enemy, but the victim of the feud as well. As seen in these examples, the drama in his films are no longer oriented towards facing other characters, but on trying to do the right thing when there is no clear definition of right and wrong. After all, when does the importance of family truly overrule that to one’s nation? And is it really worth it to come clean in court, even though the very people you are defending are long gone? Allied and Flight, along with Zemeckis’ films of the latest decade, may not really give a straight answer for these subjective questions, but neither do they shy away from showcasing stories of characters trying to do so. Thus, because the biggest drama in his recent film comes from internal conflict and moral ambiguity, not only are his films becoming darker due to the lack of perfect or happy resolutions, but there is also a loss of any clear antagonists as well.

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But while these types of plots can be slightly harder to digest due to darker tones and loss of antagonists, there is merit in showcasing these types of films. As explained by Polatis, there is an appeal to morally ambiguous characters and their stories because of how they are a lot more realistic. And by shying away from the unrealistic extremes of good and bad, characters and their decisions become all the more relatable as well (par. 11). Zemeckis seems to be following this trend, making his characters more flawed and their conflicts more realistic. As seen in Flight, Whip Whitaker is a simple man facing addiction issues and the justice system. Compared to Marty McFly’s clear solution of returning to his own time, Whip Whitaker, along with Philippe of The Walk and Max Vatan of Allied, are facing the reality that there is not always a clear path to take. The world that the audience lives in is too complicated for simple black-and-white conflicts and equally bland characters. So to better represent this reality of the audience, and perhaps increase appeal and depth, Zemeckis’ films adhere to more relatable, albeit complicated, conflicts.

There is also the idea that morally ambiguous plots are a lot deeper and substantial. With how long Zemeckis has been the career, it’s no surprise that he might wish to take on more daunting projects. Creating something as deep and meaningful as The Walk is not an easy task. Nor is dedicating time and effort into stories that are not oriented towards a mass audience, like Flight. While Zemeckis never really explicitly said much on what his films really mean to him, he has mentioned that he creates movies on the basis that ‘…they have to entertain you, in whatever way that is, and they have to speak to some human dilemma or some human truth. Those are the movies I like and those are the movies I want to make” (Zeitchik par. 36). This recent statement of his shows how entertainment alone isn’t enough to catch his interest and why his films have clearly taken a different turn in terms of conflict. After all, the blur between right and wrong is but one human dilemma that people really face today.

Development as a Director

Another reason as for why his films may have suddenly taken this change could be attributed to his overall evolution as a director. Over the years, he’s had time to experiment with different projects to see what type of films appeal to him the most. While there’s no definitive genre, he does seem to have certain preferences now when it comes to his films. One of the main preferences he’s gained over the years is for lower-budget films. After having kickstarted his career with Romancing the Stone, he’s done a lot of projects around 1980-2000 that have incredibly high budgets and equally high stakes. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was no cheap endeavor, considering the amount of money going into the integration of multiple cartoon characters.

However, if one were to look at his more recent films, their overall productions cost a lot less. Flight was done on a mere budget of $31 million. While not entirely abandoning any future projects with blockbuster-type budgets, he has talked about his experience making less expensive movies. At one point, he had even said, “it was great just to do an inexpensive movie. I’m really tired of making these huge, over $100 million movies where they literally mean life and death for a studio. It’s really rough making these expensive movies. Everyone is hysterical” (Kehr par. 26). But while he may also now have a newfound appreciation for these types of films, there is also the issue of the business behind filmmaking. While talking about studios, he said,

“They wish they could make those kinds of movies. They like to see those kinds of movies. They’re terrified to make those movies because they’re very difficult to connect with at the marketplace. So the only responsible way to make a movie like that is to say, “It has to be made for very little money” (Masters 23).

So even if Zemeckis had not taken to lower-budget films, there is a correlation with morally ambiguous movies that may have anyway influenced his preferences. But whether he came to this revelation on his own or was forced to do so, it seems that many of his later films still showcase these features anyway.

Another developing feature in his films, however, is also the constant use of special effects. As seen in Welcome to Marwen, the quality of special effects used here is a far cry from what he had been doing in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back To The Future. The doll characters are a lot more realistic, and the way they seem so well-fitted with the background compared to Roger Rabbit, a hand-drawn animated cartoon, also alludes to such quality. While this gradual development may also be due to technological advancement, it still is a personal choice for him to have followed such rise. Just like any artist, Zemeckis adapts with the times and ever-changing technology, improving the quality as fitting for a more technologically-adept viewer. And even after multiple years of doing films with performance capture and other types of special effects, he still adheres to integrating them somehow, even with the sudden shifts in genre. For Zemeckis, a film does not have to be a sci-fi or action-packed for him to include it in the story.

As seen in The Walk, special effects can even be used to induce the feeling of vertigo or the complete re-creation of the World Trade Center. Flight also makes use of subtle special effects, especially in the crash scene that Whit Whitaker miraculously pulls off. So through the change in conflict, Zemeckis is not one to shy away from using special effects. In fact, his use of special effects has actually allowed him to move forward into these types of films, seeing as special effects also have the ability to enhance the dramatic effect. Thus, even now, he continues to throw this technique in with every film he directs almost seamlessly, further rendering his films to be even more impactful.

Because of these preferences and his interest in producing films with real issues, he now seems to focus on films that combine all these together. Even if the usage of special effects may not be that obvious, and even limited due to the lower budgets, Zemeckis is still using them to enhance his stories as much as he can. The usual lack of special effects in regular documentaries and documentary-dramas is not going to stop him from including it in his films.

Conclusion

Throughout his career, Zemeckis takes interesting turns with his films, going from different genres and conflicts. Even his characters change just as much, going from clear heroes to questionable villains. And while some may be hesitant to even talk about him and his career, considering that he is less reputable and less recognizable compared to many auteurs, his filmography does deserve credit. Having spent many years in the business, and having earned quite a few awards for his work, he is still a force to be reckoned with. In the later years, he has done just as much, if not more in his films, even though they are not as renowned as his older ones. Based on the evolution of his filmography, his films are now a lot more mature in terms of conflict. Rather than sticking to simple issues that revolve around a simple protagonist and antagonist, his films are now going into deeper internal ones, where the lines separating right and wrong are no longer clear. At the same time, the years spent in the business has also forced him to develop as a director. This is seen in his sudden interest when it comes to lower-budget films, along with his continuous integration of special effects into his recent works.

Based on these changes apparent in his filmography, there seems to be a parallelism between both the films and Zemeckis himself. As he ages, so do his films. And whether or not that’s a good thing, considering the decreasing box office hits, it is a change he seems to take in full stride. He continues to do what he likes, even in the face of the masses who may disapprove.

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