Robert Zemeckis has been making movies for nearly forty years. He’s been at the forefront of a variety of technical firsts, from motion capture (on The Polar Express) to digital effects (Lieutenant Dan’s missing legs in Forrest Gump), but despite all this he’s still an actors’ director at heart, and he loves to tell a story. Even when his aim is to tell a serious story, such as in The Walk (2015), he still wants to entertain the audience, and to take them on a journey to a place they’ve never seen or experienced before. Along the way he’s made a handful of movies that are bona fide modern classics, and made a little town called Hill Valley into a place we’d all like to visit. For providing us with so many wonderful movie memories, here’s how we’ve repaid him at the international box office.
10 – Beowulf (2007) – $196,393,745
The middle picture in Zemeckis’ motion capture trilogy, Beowulf sees him trying to stretch the boundaries of both motion capture and 3D but with predictably mixed results. While his use of 3D is exemplary, the problems that prevented The Polar Express from being completely effective – the dullness of the eyes, the subtleties of lip movement – remain to make for some awkward moments. Nevertheless, the final showdown with the dragon is still one of the best fantasy sequences yet committed to screen (in any format), and Angelina Jolie is a great choice for Grendel’s mother.
9 – Back to the Future Part III (1990) – $244,527,583
The last in the trilogy was always going to divide audiences. Some were always going to love it for its Western setting, others were going to hate it for exactly the same reason. Whatever your leaning, what is unassailable is the movie’s appreciation for the genre, and the very satisfactory way in which Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale have wound up the overall story. Few trilogy closers are this triumphal, and fewer still are as emotionally astute – only Toy Story 3 (2010) springs to mind – but when you’re having this much fun saying goodbye, it seems right and proper to such a degree that you never think about just how much you’re going to miss the characters when it’s done.
8 – What Lies Beneath (2000) – $291,420,351
Zemeckis tries his hand at a psycho-drama with supernatural overtones, ropes in Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as the leads, and manages to pull off a number of effective sequences, but ultimately, What Lies Beneath is a movie that doesn’t quite work in the way that Zemeckis and screenwriter Clark Gregg want it to. The tone of the movie fluctuates too often, leaving viewers uncertain if they’re watching a bloodless horror, a taut thriller, or a domestic drama gone awry. There are elements of all three on display, but it’s when they’re all combined in the same scene that things go badly wrong. Still, the scene where Pfeiffer is paralysed in the bathtub is unbearably tense, and Zemeckis handles it with accomplished ease.
7 – The Polar Express (2004) – $307,514,317
Best seen in its IMAX 3D format, The Polar Express (now a Xmas staple) sees Zemeckis experimenting for the first time with motion capture and gives Tom Hanks the chance to emulate Alec Guinness’s eight role appearance in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). It’s a heartwarming tale, with a plethora of breathtaking visuals and sequences – the train racing across a frozen lake as the ice breaks up is simply stunning – and if it’s a little too smothered in saccharine at times, then it’s a small price to pay for a movie that in terms of its original look (and the problems that come with it) is endlessly fascinating to watch.
6 – A Christmas Carol (2009) – $325,855,863
Zemeckis teams with Jim Carrey for a version of Dickens’ classic tale that dials back on The Polar Express‘s sometimes overbearing sentimentality, and offers all kinds of visual tricks and complexities as the director tries once more to convince audiences that motion capture is the way of the future. But even though many of the issues surrounding facial expressions and physical movement that hampered The Polar Express and Beowulf have been addressed, there’s still an inherent “unreality” to the characters that, in the end (and despite the movie’s success), audiences couldn’t ignore, or overlook.
5 – Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – $329,803,958
When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was first released, there were plenty of people who were fooled by the opening Baby Herman cartoon into thinking the whole movie was going to be animated. That might have been a good move on Zemeckis’ part, but how less satisfying it would have been than this perennial crowd-pleaser, both an homage to the Golden Age of Animation, and the most expensive movie (animated or otherwise) made in the Eighties. It’s an almost perfect blend of comedy, drama, pathos and nostalgia that moves at a cracking pace, and has so many visual gags in it you can’t catch them all in a single viewing. Roger is adorable, his wife Jessica Rabbit “isn’t bad… [she’s] just drawn that way”, and when revealed, Judge Doom is one of the scariest villains in any movie, period.
4 – Back to the Future Part II (1989) – $331,950,002
Many people felt that Back to the Future Part II was too complex, too convoluted, and too much of a head-scratcher, especially when Marty travelled back to 1955 to ensure his parents got together – again. But it’s the movie’s complex understanding of time travel, and the consequences that can arise when time is tinkered with, that makes this first sequel such an unexpected joy to watch. It’s also darker and more cynical than the first and third movies, but Zemeckis handles the material with confidence and no small amount of flair. For some fans, this is the best movie in the trilogy.
3 – Back to the Future (1985) – $381,109,762
The movie that made Zemeckis’ career, Back to the Future is a delight from start to finish, a beautifully rendered love poem to a bygone era, and one of the smartest sci-fi comedies ever made (if not the smartest). Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd make for an inspired teaming, and the whole thing is both whimsical and irresistible, with some classic lines of dialogue (“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”), and a whole raft of smart, enagaging performances. A movie you can watch over and over again and never tire of it.
2 – Cast Away (2000) – $429,632,142
If all you take away from Cast Away is that Tom Hanks lost an awful lot of weight to convince viewers his character was living on a desert island, and that he talked (a lot) to a volleyball called Wilson, then you’re missing the point of a movie that paints a vivid, unsentimental portrait of a man believed missing at sea who learns the art of survival the hard way. Hanks gives one of his best-ever performances, but the script includes too many longeuers for comfort, and the final third fails to match the impetus of the opening scenes. Zemeckis shows a keen eye for the practicalities of surviving on a desert island, and along with a committed Hanks, ensures the audience is just as invested in Hanks’s character getting off the island as he is.
1 – Forrest Gump (1994) – $677,945,399
Unsurprisingly, it’s the Oscar-winning home run that is Forrest Gump which sits atop this list. A perfect combination of director, script and star, the movie blends so many disparate elements, both thematically and visually (and with such confidence), that it’s easy to forget just how much of a surprise this movie was when it appeared over twenty years ago. Hanks, arguably, has never been better, and the same can be said of Zemeckis, who displays a fearlessness in handling the material that he’s never quite managed to recapture in his work since then.