Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on the cinema of Robert Zemeckis.
Robert Zemeckis may as well have been one of Roger's favorite American filmmakers. The fascination that Roger had with Zemeckis' cinema is career-long, from his first four-star review (for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") to the last film the critic reviewed, 2012's "Flight," and the many other raves in between. Whether working in live-action, animation, or a trademark mix of both, Zemeckis proved to be an exciting innovator and entertainer to Roger, a director who continued to push the expectations of a moviegoing experience, while still offering a classic fun in the process.
The first film that Roger reviewed directed by Zemeckis was 1980's “Used Cars,” which he awarded two stars (while also sharing that he really enjoyed Zemeckis’ earlier-released debut, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”) Referring to Zemeckis’ collaborative spirit with co-writer/producer Bob Gale, Roger said that in “Used Cars” the two were “higher on kinetic energy than on structure and comedic instinct.” Zemeckis fared better in Roger’s eyes with his 1984 followup “Romancing the Stone,” in which he awarded the “silly, high-spirited chase picture” three stars.
That very energy and comic instinct improved with “Back to the Future,” which Roger gave three-and-a-half stars in a review published on July 3, 1985. While stating that “the movie’s surprises are one of its great pleasures,” Roger wrote that Zemeckis “shows not only a fine comic touch but also the lighthearted humanism of Frank Capra.” Roger even applauded executive producer Steven Spielberg for bringing Zemeckis onto the project, saying, “maybe it’s time to wonder if Spielberg is emulating the great studio chiefs of the past, who specialized in matching the right director with the right project. This time, the match works with charm, brains, and a lot of laughter."
On June 22, 1988, Roger published his first four-star review for a Zemeckis film with the live-action/animation combo “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” In one of the biggest raves you’ll ever read from Roger, he describes it like many of future Zemeckis films would feel like: “the kind of movie that gets made once in a blue moon, because it represents an immense challenge to the filmmakers: They have to make a good movie while inventing new technology at the same time.” With a contagious excitement for Zemeckis’ classic, Roger called the film “a joyous, giddy, goofy celebration of the fun you can have with a movie camera.”
Zemeckis’ return to the “Back to the Future” movies brought a progressively descending star-rating. “Back to the Future Part II,” reviewed on November 22, 1989, earned three stars, with Roger scratching his head through some of it: “I should have brought a big yellow legal pad to the screening, so I could take detailed legal notes just to keep the time-lines straight.” He later added, returning Zemeckis to context of days like “Used Cars,” “‘Part II,’ on the other hand, is mostly just zaniness and screwball jokes. But on that level, it’s fun.” Meanwhile, in a two-and-a-half star review published on May 25, 1990, Roger said that “Back to the Future Part III” is “sort of fun, but it’s somehow too linear … as if [Zemeckis] ran out of time travel plot ideas, and settled into a standard Western universe.”
Roger didn’t review Zemeckis’ 1992 followup, “Death Becomes Her,” but he did find another special experience in Zemeckis’ cinema with 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” In a four-star review published on July 6, 1994, Roger wrote: "I've never met anyone like Forrest Gump in a movie before, and for that matter I've never seen a movie quite like 'Forrest Gump.' Any attempt to describe him will risk making the movie seem more conventional than it is, but let me try. It's a comedy, I guess. Or maybe a drama. Or a dream." Saying that "Tom Hanks may be the only actor who could have played the role," Roger concluded his review with a statement informal but rare: "What a magical movie."
On July 11, 1997, Roger gave three-and-a-half stars to "Contact," calling it "the smartest and most absorbing story about extraterrestrial intelligence since 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'" The sci-fi about life, death, God and space excited Roger with its depth into the subjects on a multiplex scale: "Movies like 'Contact' help explain why movies like 'Independence Day' leave me feeling empty and unsatisfied. When I look up at the sky through a telescope, when I follow the landing of the research vehicle on Mars, when I read about cosmology, I brush against transcendence." Roger revisited the film when he indoctrinated it into his "Great Movies" collection on December 21, 2011, essentially bumping up his previous grade to four stars. "Watching the film again after 14 years, I was startled by how bold it is," he wrote.
The next film of Zemeckis' that Roger really connected with, (aside from the two stars he gave "What Lies Beneath" and the three he awarded to "Cast Away") was "The Polar Express." Roger reviewed the film twice, both to the tune of four stars, for a regular version in 2004 and then an IMAX 3D version he saw a year later. The critic remarked about how the look of the film was "extraordinary," while commenting upon the motion-capture usage that would become so prevalent in Zemeckis' following work: "The characters in "The Polar Express" don't look real, but they don't look unreal, either; they have a kind of simplified and underlined reality that makes them visually magnetic."
When Zemeckis tackled another famous piece of literature, "Beowulf," the same sense of wonder was not there, but Roger gave it three stars when he reviewed it on November 14, 2007, packaging it as a funnier-than-you-may-expect movie. Still, the plot was an issue: "The movie is also showing in non-IMAX 3-D, and in the usual 2-D. Not bad for a one-dimensional story." Zemeckis did better in Roger's eyes with "Disney's A Christmas Carol," which he gave four stars to on November 4, 2009. "'Disney's A Christmas Carol' ... is an exhilarating visual experience and proves for the third time he's one of the few directors who knows what he's doing with 3-D," Roger wrote. Astonished with the visual look of the film (spending more time on it than in his "Beowulf" review), the critic made a distinction about Zemeckis' filmmaking: "He seems to have a more sure touch than many other directors, using 3-D instead of being used by it."
After 12 years, Zemeckis returned to live-action filmmaking for "Flight," which Roger reviewed on October 31, 2012—his sixth four-star review for a Zemeckis film (counting "Contact"). The story of an alcoholic pilot who helps land a crashing plane had what Roger said was "one of the most terrifying flying scenes I've ever witnessed," and one of Denzel Washington's "very best" performances. He concluded that the project was "nearly flawless," with a rather amusing, offhand coda to his review: "I can think of another final line of dialogue for Whip Whitaker's character ("My name is Whip, and I'm an alcoholic"), but that's just me."