What Lies Beneath: The Films of Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis, creator of some of the most iconic films of the last 40 years, including Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Forrest Gump (1994), and Cast Away (2000), will be honored with a major career retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art from September 29 through October 18, 2015. Opening on September 29 with a special screening of Zemeckis’ latest film, The Walk (2015), the retrospective will include all of Zemeckis’ feature films as well as a selection of his television work and student films. Zemeckis will participate in a post-screening Q&A on September 29 following the screening of The Walk, the PG-rated, all-audience 3D motion picture experience that retells Philippe Petit’s high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. On October 3, MoMA will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future by screening all three Back to the Future films in succession, just in advance of October 21, 2015, the date that Marty McFly travels to the future in Back to the Future II (1989). 

Commenting on the announcement, Zemeckis said, “I am thrilled to be receiving this tremendous honor from MoMA.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been making films for more than 30 years, leading up to now with ‘The Walk.’  I feel extraordinarily thankful that I have had the opportunity to make these films, and to have the chance to see them all, in a great theater, where audiences can enjoy them, is very gratifying.”

A profoundly personal filmmaker, Zemeckis is one of the last of the generation 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, 1997), sometimes an accident (Cast Away, 2000), and sometimes a consequence of character (Flight, 2012). 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, 1980), 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, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), 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 moviemaking. Moving from complex optical effects to a full embrace of digital technology, Zemeckis has literally altered the dimensions of American movies. His 2004 film The Polar Express (2004) 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.

What Lies Beneath: The Films of Robert Zemeckis is organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film, MoMA.