That Robert Zemeckis has created some of the most popular films of the last 40 years is beyond dispute: Used Cars (1980), Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and Cast Away (2000) count among the classics of the American cinema, as certified by box office returns and critics’ awards, as well as a pair of Oscars (Best Picture and Best Director) for Forrest Gump (1994). But Zemeckis is also a profoundly personal filmmaker, one of the last of that glorious breed of American studio directors who were instinctively able to combine popular appeal and individual expression, with no sense of compromise or condescension.
Beneath the cheerful, lively surfaces of his films lies a consistent focus on the isolation of the individual in modern society, a pervasive loneliness that is sometimes a choice (Contact), sometimes an accident (Cast Away), and sometimes a consequence of character. His sense of America as a playground full of bright, cheap, ultimately disappointing toys (Back to the Future), businessmen indistinguishable from confidence hucksters (Used Cars), and a land ruled not so much by opportunity and ambition but by blind luck and empty optimism (Forrest Gump) offers a darkly satirical vision in the guise of folk wisdom. Within American letters his closest relative is probably Mark Twain—and like Twain, Zemeckis has given us one of the great allegories of race relations in this country, the still underrated Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its themes of segregation, suppression, and the projection of forbidden desires.
Beginning with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis has also been a major force for technological change in American filmmaking. Moving from complex optical effects to a full embrace of digital technology, Zemeckis has literally altered the dimensions of American movies. His 2004 Polar Express pioneered motion capture technology and launched the modern, digital 3-D format, and he has continued to work with subtly altered digital images in live action films such as Flight.
MoMA’s retrospective will strive to include all of Zemeckis’s major features—beginning with his newest film, The Walk (2015)—as well as a selection of his television work (Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt), documentaries (Robert Zemeckis on Smoking, Drinking, and Drugging in the 20th Century), and student films.
Organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film.