Since I’m stuck watching Back to the Future every week of 2013 as part of the Cinema 52 experiment, I thought I’d try to retain some sanity by watching some other movies by its director, Robert Zemeckis. And because I secretly love insanity, I thought I’d try to watch his complete filmography back-to-back in one weekend. Here we go. It’s The Full Zemeckis.

(Missed Days One and Two? Click those links, buddy.)

CAST AWAY (2000)

Previous viewings: Couple times on VHS with the parents, and I usually watch as much of it as I can when it’s on TV.

Do I have to finish hating on What Lies Beneath yet? Just think; if Tom Hanks had worked out a little faster, that movie wouldn’t even exist. But okay, let’s begin. Chubby Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a FedEx systems analyst who proposes to his longtime girlfriend Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) the night before his plane crashes into the goddamned ocean. Now, he must survive in complete isolation on a small uninhabited island, using only the FedEx packages that wash up on shore and his most basic survival skills. He finds a friend in a volleyball he names Wilson (a volleyball), who makes a fine companion to deliver exposit– wait, dammit, Chuck NO-LAND? Are you kidding me?

Michael Stranded? David Washedashore? Sir Vivor of Planecrash?

First and foremost, this is a movie for your mom… and I’ll always join her for it. Sure, they could have rated this thing a hard R, with Hanks running around naked, getting his leg eaten off, and crying as he bangs a Helen Hunt simulator made of palm fronds and a squishy dead crab before bashing his own skull in with a coconut. Still, the movie works just fine as it stands, and that’s because of one key factor: simplicity. The Zemeckis brand of special effects are still here, but for the most part, they don’t distract. The plane crash looks incredible, and that’s about all the mind-blowing we need before we settle in for an uncomplicated story of trying not to die. There’s a MacGyver element to the packages that wash ashore and how Chuck uses what’s inside them, and while I don’t feel a personal connection to Wilson like some particularly weepy people, I like him as a device to get Chuck talking. Voiceover would have ruined this, and silence would have been unbearable. Speaking of silence, the lack of score just adds to the feeling of isolation. Some people find the ending long and unnecessary, but I think it brings up a lot of head-scratching issues that always stick with me every time I watch it (even if I might prefer the film to go in a different direction, one that that link will spoil if you haven’t seen it). As Mom Movies go, it’s probably the best.

THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004)

Previous viewings: I caught the very end of it on TV while spending Christmas with a friend. She made fudge brownies and I was kinda trying to get with her. All of these elements helped me refrain from shrieking at this train wreck.

Uh oh. We’ve unleashed a demon, and its name is Mocap. Away with you, cursed Mocap! Release your foul grip on poor Robert! Be gone, once and for all, beast! If you didn’t know, Robert Zemeckis decided, “Hey, why can’t every shot be a special effect?” and started making strictly cartoons for a few years. But not just any cartoons! Cartoons that require actors to wear green jumpsuits and glue little balls to their face. And in the case of Tom Hanks, do it, like, fourteen goddamned times! In The Polar Express, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks whisk a bunch of unnamed, unbilled kids away on a magic train to the North Pole, because they all need to learn the magic of Christmas. Over the course of 100 minutes, stuff happens.

Stuff like this stuff.

On top of me trying to watch this in June, I am neither a fan of Christmas nor parades, so I am absolutely not the intended audience, because this movie is just one giant parade. Look at this! Check out that thing! Here’s a musical number! Whatever! The story is paper-thin. Us kids don’t believe in Santa, let’s go meet Santa, we met him. To stretch that to 100 minutes, they have to pad it with all sorts of showy, tinsel-covered crap. There’s a pretty thrilling scene where the train has to cut across a frozen lake, but besides that, everything is just bright and makes noise and doesn’t add to the story. In addition to not holding my interest, all this in-your-face fun is performed by terrifyingly lifelike but definitively inhuman CGI monster-people. Couple their creepy, not-quite-finished-rendering stares with the fact that they’ve just snatched a bunch of unsupervised children in the middle of the night… and you’ve got the perfect recipe for Christmas horror.

BEOW–

No, wait, I’m not done with this turd. How can you call this a movie about faith when you are clearly showing all of these kids evidence of Santa? How is this the same director that made Contact? It’s the exact same plot, by the way, except aliens are Santa now; did Robert Zemeckis take Contact and re-make it for stupid people? Oh, also, you can’t really do a big reveal on the actor playing Santa Claus when it’s Tom Hanks, the same guy who’s played every single character up until this point. Oh, and A STEVEN TYLER ELF? FU–

BEOWULF (2007)

Previous viewings: Saw it in the theater, watched it twice on DVD, once with RiffTrax.

Screenwriters, man. What will they think of next? Beowulf is the mo-capped story of Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who battled three monsters in the original epic poem, I think, but I don’t have my notes from high school with me right this second. Anyway, this Beowulf comes from far away to fight the horrible screaming monster Grendel, who, I shit you not, is played by George McFly himself, Crispin Glover. After ripping Grendel’s arm off and screaming his own name, Beowulf is tasked with taking out the creature’s mother, the most bangin’ Robert Zemeckis cartoon since Jessica Rabbit, played by Angelina Jolie.

This was fun in a theater full of kids and English teachers.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing up there? PG-13. Which you could maybe give a pass, but this movie is crammed with stabbings, breaking bones, gallons of digital blood, weirdly obscured genitalia, and suggestive dialogue that always stops one innuendo short of straight-up demanding a mead wench BJ. Robert Zemeckis must have, honestly, invented a new kind of cocaine to trade the MPAA for this rating. Or assassinated all their mothers-in-law. Something like that. But hey, I’m an adult, and I’m into sex, violence, and dirty talk, so good job, movie. Oh, wait, except for the really stupid naked fight with Grendel. I remember reading in a magazine that, oh yes, we were going to get CGI penis. Tons of it. I can’t find that article now, but when I saw foreground object after foreground object laughably covering Beowulf’s junk, I flashed back to Robert Zemeckis saying this was going to be brutally accurate and Beowulf will fight naked and you will see his meat-sword. (+5 kenning points.) All in all, this is a pretty good testosterone flick if you don’t take it too seriously, one that pairs nicely with 300. It deviates from the original poem enough for Cinemanaut Becca to complain every so often, but for a Zemeckis mocap movie, you could do a lot worse than a brutal Old English epic penned by Neil Gaiman.

(We’ve already done a lot worse. It’s The Polar Express. Did you catch that? Okay. Just checking.)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Previous viewings: None.

Based on the beloved classic by Charles Dickens, this is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a Christmas-hating bastard who learns a lesson in kindness when he’s visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Gho– shit. Is this time travel? He doesn’t actually affect the past. More of a prophecy, really. Well, I mean, we counted prophecies as long as they were science-based, and these are just ghosts, so no, we won’t give it its own time travel article, as is the custom around here.

So, Ebenezer is whisked away to the past, where he sees– yeah, this totally counts. Click on over to a very Zemeckis Christmas edition of Time Out, and we’ll see you back here when you’re done. Glad we sorted that out.

FLIGHT (2012)

Previous viewings: None.

Denzel Washington IS NAMED Whip Whitaker, and he’s an airline pilot with all the stock dramatic vices. When the plane he’s piloting goes into a dive, Whip miraculously flips it over (hahahahaha, like that other movie) and makes a mostly safe landing in a tiny field next to a church, because we just have to have another Zemeckis movie about faith. But wait! Denzel was drinking at the time, and there were a few casualties! According to simulators, nobody should have been able to land this plane… but Whip did. Was it the booze? Was it a miracle? Will he be convicted? Can he kick the drinking? Do you care?

Anybody? Cheadle? Captain Pike? No?

I only heard complete praise or complete hatred for this movie, but all it gave me was a string of yawns. I mean, pardon the shitty pun, but I can’t think of any other word… doesn’t this premise feel like it’s on auto-pilot? Okay, so Whip’s a drunk. Cue the montages of him trying to kick the habit. There’s going to be an investigation into the crash. Show his attorney (Don Cheadle) trying to clear him of the charges. Then… ? You just sort of count the minutes of Denzel playing a drunk until the big climactic hearing. The main problem is a lack of meaningful or interesting character interactions. For example, Whip starts dating a drug addict (Kelly Reilly), but she’s just there to watch him be a jerk while he tries to quit the sauce. That’s it. She’s around. End of arc. At one point, I thought I could focus on the shameful idea that so many characters were rooting for Whip to get away with it, but I never felt any depth from it. It just came across like bad storytelling. By the end, I’d already seen every possible verdict in my mind, so the one that actually closes the film didn’t surprise me and didn’t even unfold in an interesting way. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling like there isn’t actually a movie on.

Oh, bonus tidbit: Cinemanaut John wonders if this was supposed to be a Tony Scott film, but it was passed to Robert Zemeckis after Scott died. This would certainly make sense based on how many times Washington and Scott have worked together. Considering Tony Scott was the director I marathoned last year, I certainly think he had more experience with dark, violent characters; perhaps he could have added some sorely lacking style to Flight. And hopefully some billowy curtains.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I would like the Zemeckis who gave us Contact back. I would definitely like the Zemeckis who gave us Back to the Future back. I don’t know what I would do to get the Zemeckis that gave us Used Cars back, but if it involves kidnapping Bob Gale, I’ve got a burlap sack with his name on it.

I feel like when Robert is good, he practically earns himself the right to have a misstep or two, but man, they really pile up over the years. It’s funny; when I first heard of all this loathing for the man who gave the world the cinematic gem that is Back to the Future, I wondered just what it was that turned people against him. I originally thought it was just the sappiness of Forrest Gump. I see now that it’s his addiction to special effects coupled with that Oscar-baiting sentimentality, and when it’s bad, it’s very bad.

I have two positive things to say in regards to Robert’s reliance on visual trickery. First, I didn’t notice how much work was going on behind the scenes when I was a child, and I completely bought in to the illusion. A part of me feels like this is completely acceptable; if I was drawn in for a film targeted at children and families, then he accomplished his mission, correct? Maybe I’m just too old for his later work, or, the far worse answer, maybe Roger Rabbit isn’t that good? (No, I can’t bring myself to say that.) Secondly, special effects are a science, and Robert took on some projects that would have made lesser directors run away in terror. I feel like that counts for something. I don’t feel particularly good about that statement after seeing some of the results, but dammit, he tried. And he learns each time he does. The flappy robot mouths in Forrest Gump are gone by Contact. The scary dead eyes of The Polar Express are replaced with some convincingly human expressions in A Christmas Carol. As long as you learn, you get a pat on the back, even if your movie ends up sucking.

Unfortunately, I feel like Robert doesn’t learn the lessons all at once. And keep in mind, there are two sets of lessons: critical acclaim and box office. I didn’t like Forrest Gump, but the people who made money off of it sure as hell did. Sometimes Robert gets it right along the way, moving the sliders on groundbreaking visuals, heartfelt drama, and dark comedy just perfectly. And when he hits, he definitely hits, hard enough that the resulting classic is hard to top.

Along the way, I’ve seen a lot of themes in Robert’s work. Self-improvement. The burden of time. Romance born out of trauma. In his early years, the duality of nostalgia. In his later years, faith. Oh, also, lightning. In just about every movie. I forgot to check a couple films along the way, but Zemeckis uses it enough to qualify as a cinematic Zeus. And what’s in store for Robert’s future? Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m going to go out on this… have I learned nothing of cheesiness this weekend? Well, what the hell…

Your future hasn’t been written yet, Robert. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.

All my best,
Cinemanaut Bill

PS – Seriously, Robert, maybe give the mocap a break and give Bob Gale a call?

IF YOU ONLY HAVE TIME TO WATCH FIVE ZEMECKIS FILMS BEFORE YOU DIE:
Used Cars
Back to the Future
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Contact
Cast Away

IF YOU’RE MIRACULOUSLY GRANTED A FEW MORE HOURS FOR SOME GUILTY FUN:
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Back to the Future Parts II and III
Beowulf

IF YOU SOMEHOW STILL HAVEN’T DIED AND YOU’RE PASSING THE TIME:
Death Becomes Her, I guess, if it’s on TV? Bruce Willis is kinda fun. Wait, or just read a book.

Oh, also, if you followed along on my Twitter page, I made a vine for the downtime between each movie. Here’s every step of the way in one convenient video.