The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Robert Zemeckis

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Last week, we examined the career of the legendary Warren Beatty. This week’s subject is a director with over thirty years of major hits on his resume…

Robert Zemeckis

While he now ranks among the most successful Hollywood directors of all-time, with his movies having made billions at the box office, Robert Zemeckis’s career got off to a rocky start. Along with Bob Gale, he wrote Steven Spielberg’s 1941, and the heat off that project, which hadn’t come-out at that point, allowed him to make his directorial debut on the raunchy comedy, USED CARS. Upon its initial release, 1941 was considered a disaster (along contrary to its rep, it never lost money) and USED CARS flopped at the box office, putting Zemeckis’s career in jeopardy.

Luckily, Michael Douglas took a chance on him, handing him the reins of ROMANCING THE STONE, which become one of the biggest hits of 1984 and turned Michael Douglas, then known mostly for TV and for being a producer, into a bona-fide movie star. Yet, Fox apparently thought the film would be a disaster and actually took him off COCOON. This was a blessing in disguise, with Zemeckis immediately jumping into his passion project, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and the rest is history.

Like his other early movies, BACK TO THE FUTURE was a controversial production, with original star Eric Stoltz getting replaced by Michael J. Fox relatively late into production. When it went on to become one of the biggest films of the decade, it didn’t really matter, and Zemeckis’s reputation was made. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, despite a controversially high budget, was another smash, and Zemeckis made the then novel decision to shoot BACK TO THE FUTURE II & III back-to-back, a model that’s become very popular in recent years. His follow-up DEATH BECOMES HER was a minor flop, but FORREST GUMP won him an Oscar for best director (controversially winning over Quentin Tarantino). After CAST AWAY and WHAT LIES BENEATH (both huge hits) he started championing motion-capture CGI, but in recent years has returned to live action with FLIGHT, THE WALK and this week’s ALLIED.

His Best Work

For me, this was pretty close between BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. The latter was probably more important on a technical level, with the novel SFX seamlessly blending cartoon and live-action, and seeing it theatrically as a six year old was a memorable experience – one of the most formative ones of my youth. Yet, it just doesn’t get better than BACK TO THE FUTURE. While I’m not quite as fond of the sequels as most other fans are, the original is a masterpiece and something of a cultural touchstone for my generation. Michael J. Fox may have been a late addition as Marty, but he’s the perfect surrogate for Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale. Along with Christopher Lloyd as doc, Lea Thompson, the Alan Silvestri score and pretty much everything else about it, BACK TO THE FUTURE feels like a miraculous piece of cinematic art where all the ingredients fell majestically into place.

His Most Overrated Work

I’m not a fan of Zemeckis’s extended sojourn into CGI animation. I despise the Motion Capture look, which gave all the character the dreaded “dead eye syndrome”, and BEOWULF and A CHRISTMAS CAROL did nothing for me, even though I respect the craft. THE POLAR EXPRESS has since gone on to become a minor classic (although it nearly lost money in its original release) but to me, it looks pretty primitive, especially a decade later. Pixar this ain’t.

His Most Underrated Film

A lot of people are awfully fond of Zemeckis’s USED CARS. Its a pretty interesting little film, being a wild, raunchy comedy about competing used car lots. It’s interesting to see how important this was in the evolution of Kurt Russell as an adult actor (he was coming off a run of Disney movies at the time) and it was an important stepping stone to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. It’s one of those movies that, had it been a hit, it might have creatively been a bad thing for all involved, and Zemeckis might have gotten pigeonholed as a comedy guy. It’s a great curio and a damn fun film.

His Best Scene

It doesn’t get much better than the unveiling of the DeLorean by Doc, with the great score by Silvestri, the production design, the FX and the performances by Fox and Lloyd adding up to one of the all-time classic scenes.


Up Next

Now that he’s back in live-action, Zemeckis seems hellbent on making up for lost time, having churned out three movies in rapid succession. ALLIED is a distinctly adult, sexy thriller for him, and it’ll be interesting to see how its received by audiences.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.