Robert Zemeckis’ Reign of Terror Is Finally At An End


Robert Zemeckis used to be one of the finest movie directors in the world.

For his work directing Back To The Future and its sequels, as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the 10-year old me considered him the greatest helmsman in the history of Hollywood.

The Academy shared my high esteem after Zemeckis masterminded the epic Forrest Gump, marshalling totems from four decades of Americana into one gigantic Hanksathon that thrilled viewers and critics alike. He was named the Best Director of 1994.

Unfortunately, Zemeckis’ career soon began to turn for the worse.

Maybe it was some kind of alien signal that infiltrated his mind while filming Contact, which was pretty good except for the totally implausible McConaughey character. His next film, What Lies Beneath, was probably the most cliche-ridden film I’ve seen in all my days, and what’s worse, Zemeckis was fronting like he could hang with Hitchcock. Then came the grueling Cast Away, a desperate play for Oscar glory with FedEx ads plastered all over it.

All this was merely prologue to the horrid turn his career would soon take. Zemeckis decided that motion-capture technology was the future, and used it to adapt The Polar Express. The result was a melange of creepy looking figures prancing about on the screen, destroying my childhood memories of the classic Christmas book and replacing them with uncanny valley nightmares.

Despite the tepid critical response, Big Z then doubled down on the technology, using Disney funding to build his own studio. His continued his appalling rampage by cranking out the blasphemous motion-capture edition of Beowulf and then moving on to last winter’s Christmas Carol adaptation with a bizarre Jim Carrey-alike in the role of Scrooge.

Zemeckis then hit rock bottom when he went public with demands that Oscar create its own category for the horrible motion-capture films that he and only he is interested in making.

Mere weeks later, Jim Cameron’s Avatar not only beat him at his own game, it completely wiped his studio off the map. Cameron re-invented the special effects that Zemeckis spent a decade beating into the ground — Cameron insisted on calling his technology “performance capture” to distinguish it from Zemeckis’ abominations — and embarrassed him at the box office.

Now, Disney has shut down Zemeckis’ studio and sent him packing. The arrogant manner in which Zemeckis squandered his talent has long enraged me, but today I smile.

Finally, justice has been served.

The beginning of Zemeckis’ downfall was the aforementioned What Lies Beneath. This movie’s twist was that Harrison Ford was the bad guy, despite the fact that we have been conditioned to trust him over the first two acts of the movie, not to mention two decades of filmgoing.

That’s fine, but Zemeckis pooped all over the audience by giving the twist away in the theatrical trailer. His theory? People WANT to know the ending before they go to see the movie. Fuck you, Zemeckis!

Don’t even get me started on his pretentions to make a Hitchcockian thriller, all the while copping out with a supernatural plot that neatly ties up the loose ends of a preposterous story.

Ebert executed an excellent takedown of this turd of a film:

There’s a bag of tricks that skillful horror directors use, and they’re employed here by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”), who has always wanted, he says, to make a suspense film–“perhaps the kind of film Hitchcock would have done in his day,” according to his producer, Jack Rapke. Hitchcock would not, however, have done this film in his day or any other day, because Hitchcock would have insisted on rewrites to remove the supernatural and explain the action in terms of human psychology, however abnormal.

[…]

I’ve tried to play fair and not give away plot elements. That’s more than the ads have done. The trailer of this movie thoroughly demolishes the surprises; if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what the movie is about, and all of the suspense of the first hour is superfluous for you, including major character revelations. Don’t directors get annoyed when they create suspense and the marketing sabotages their efforts?

Actually, Zemeckis boasted about his trailer technique in promotional press for the film!

This arrogant “I understand the moviegoing public better than the critics” attitude led him to fart his career away over the following decade. After his failed attempt to recapture Oscar glory with Cast Away, Zemeckis went down the motion-capture rabbit hole, into a dark place…and dragged movie viewers down with him.

The beauty of Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” is its magical realism, epitomized by its famous concept of a bell that can only be heard by those that believe in Santa Claus. The illustrations in this Caldecott-winning book are superb and evocative. In short, it is a genius piece of storytelling, enhanced by tremendous artistic talents.

Zemeckis took this masterpiece and decided to innovate it using the motion-capture techniques shown above. The result was a horrifying, skeevy sideshow of technology gone wrong.

i09 hit the nail on the head when they described this film as “A world of Tom Hanks faces, shudder and mutated children. When those kids smiled they looked the demons from Devil’s Advocate, which probably isn’t what this Christmas film was going for.”

The reason why this technology goes beyond lame to a place that’s frankly frightening is an effect known as the uncanny valley. Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis regarding the field of robotics. The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Maybe the crowd-sourced encyclopedia isn’t the best scientific evidence, so here’s a little reinforcement from Scientific American:

The flop of the 2004 animated film The Polar Express is largely blamed on the “creepy” feeling people get when they look at very realistic-looking robots or human animations. These too real facsimiles fall into the so-called uncanny valley, between acceptably fake-looking human representations and real, healthy humans. Psychologists have long wondered whether this aversion has an evolutionary basis, and new research on macaques suggests that it does.

Princeton University researchers presented images of real monkey faces, unrealistic animated faces and realistic animated faces to five monkey subjects and recorded how long they gazed at each. Similar to the human response to objects in the uncanny valley, the monkeys avoided looking at the most realistic animated faces.

Even MONKEYS understand that this technology is monstrously bad!

If you want to make a Pixar-like computer-animated cartoon, then by all means, have at it. If you want to use effects to enhance a live-action film, awesome. But when you lean on an FX crutch that leads you to create imagery like this…

…you are crafting a cinematic nightmare.

Zemeckis’ next project was an adaptation of the classic Norse epic poem Beowulf. This ancient masterpiece is fascinating on literary and anthropological levels and inspired such modern classics as “The Lord of the Rings” – Tolkien was an Oxford don who was considered the foremost Beowulf expert of his time. His essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” called for an understanding of the film not only as a historical document but also as a literary work of genius.

Naturally, Zemeckis couldn’t wait to get his hands on this legend and transform it into a motion-capture atrocity. The Wiki entry contains all sorts of horrifying nuggets on this front:

Zemeckis did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay. Because of the expanded budget, Zemeckis told the screenwriters to rewrite their script, because “there is nothing that you could write that would cost me more than a million dollars per minute to film. Go wild!” In particular, the entire fight with the dragon was rewritten from a talky confrontation to a battle spanning the cliffs and the sea.

[…]

Robert Zemeckis insisted that the character Beowulf resemble depictions of Jesus Christ, believing that a correlation could be made between Christ’s face and a universally accepted appeal.

[…]

Southern Methodist University’s Director of Medieval Studies Bonnie Wheeler is “convinced that the new Robert Zemeckis movie treatment sacrifices the power of the original for a plot line that propels Beowulf into seduction by Angelina Jolie—the mother of the monster he has just slain.’ What man doesn’t get involved with Angelina Jolie?’ Wheeler asks. ‘It’s a great cop-out on a great poem.'”

I think I would rather watch a video of the performance above than the final result run through the motion-capture meat grinder.

Since Robert Zemeckis knows better than anyone else what makes great cinema, he immediately began looking for another literary classic to disrespect, tarnish and adorn with effects straight out of Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3.

Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal hit a critical grand slam with this explanation of why Zemeckis’ “Carol” is such an unmitigated waste of celluloid.

To put it bluntly, if Scroogely, Disney’s 3-D animated version of “A Christmas Carol” is a calamity. The pace is predominantly glacial—that alone would be enough to cook the goose of this premature holiday turkey—and the tone is joyless, despite an extended passage of bizarre laughter, several dazzling flights of digital fancy, a succession of striking images and Jim Carrey’s voicing of Scrooge plus half a dozen other roles. “Why so coldhearted?” Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, asks the old skinflint. The same question could be asked of Robert Zemeckis, who adapted and directed the film, and of the company that financed it. Why was simple pleasure frozen out of the production? Why does the beloved story feel embalmed by technology? And why are its characters as insubstantial as the snowflakes that seem to be falling on the audience?

A catch-all answer—and by now an all-too-familiar one—lies in the unnature of that technology. Like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” which were also directed by Mr. Zemeckis, “A Christmas Carol” employs a motion-capture process that translates the movements of live actors into fantasy images. For its advocates, the process is cost-efficient and good enough. For its detractors, including me, motion capture has become synonymous with a special sort of semi-lifelessness—body language that is vaguely impoverished, faces with limited mobility and dead eyes.

In the global marketing push for his new film, the director has dismissed such problems as essentially solved. But they haven’t been solved at all; they’ve only been mitigated, and partially masked by the novelty value of 3-D. Motion capture remains an impediment to capturing emotion.

FilmDrunk ran this hilarious transcript of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew blasting Zemeckis’ filmic atrocities:

Kevin Murphy: I’ll just start the bidding with the entire Robert Zemeckis Christmas movie library. [A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express.] He’s really tried, with his dead, doll-like eye animation that he does, to destroy Christmas for children all over the world.

Mike Nelson: Smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley, aren’t they? You just don’t know whether to scream or be delighted.

KM: Just to warm myself up for seeing [A Christmas Carol], just to amp up my hate a little bit, I watched the Christmastown/Nuremberg-rally scene in Polar Express. The end, when the elves are marching in formation, and Hitler—oh, I’m sorry, Santa—comes out…

Bill Corbett: [Laughs.] Hitler Claus!

KM: It’s severely backlit behind him, and everyone is just sort of…

BC: [evil voice] “Ho Ho Heil!”

KM: [Laughs.] Yeah. I can’t get on board with Roger Ebert about A Christmas Carol. I think he’s one hundred thousand percent wrong.

BC: Did Roger Ebert like it? Wow. What’s going on with that man?

KM: I don’t know. Maybe he likes misery and horror for children.

The fact that Robert Zemeckis, the guy who directed fucking Back to the Future, flushed his career down the motion capture toilet is offensive enough. That he felt he deserved laurels for this “achievement” is truly staggering.

This article from La Tercera, also discovered by FilmDrunk and translated from Spanish, reveals some quotes from Zemeckis that betray amazing arrogance. He compares his achievements in motion-capture to the animation innovations of Walt Disney himself and suggests he should not only win an Oscar, but a SPECIAL Oscar acknowledging his unique talents.

“I would say it would be appropriate to create a new category, as when Walt Disney made the first animated film. He was given a special award because no one had done that before,” said the pioneer in applying new technologies to cinema.

Zemeckis’ henchman Jack Rapke is also quoted in the article saying that Carrey deserves an Oscar for his performance. Why don’t you jokers (a) stop toppling masterpieces of Western culture and (b) stop awarding yourselves Oscars for at best mediocre, and at worst blasphemous, cinematic diarrhea.

Luckily for me, the market intervened. Disney watched in horror as James Cameron greatly surpassed Zemeckis’ “achievements” in motion capture technology.

Avatar has its critics, but one thing that’s universally acknowledged is that it is a technical masterpiece that manages to bridge the uncanny valley. The Na’vi were believable figures on the screen, rather than horrifying dead-eyed monsters. Not only that, but Avatar’s massive box office gross completely wiped the floor with Zemeckis’ “Carol.”

So let us stand and applaud as Disney drops the guillotine on Zemeckis’ reign of terror.

Walt Disney Studios pulled the plug on Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture company on Friday, the latest in a string of cost-cutting moves. ImageMovers Digital, which is based near San Francisco and employs 450 people, will slowly wind down production over the next few months.

In some ways, the ghost of Christmas past paid Mr. Zemeckis a visit. His hugely expensive “A Christmas Carol” was a big disappointment for Disney, especially considering how much promotional muscle the studio put behind it. And despite his pioneering work in motion-capture technology, Mr. Zemeckis has been leapfrogged in the genre by James Cameron and “Avatar.”

[…]

Mr. Zemeckis said in a statement, “I’m incredibly proud of the talented team that we assembled.” He added, “Their pride and dedication to making quality movies is evident in everything we have produced.”

If by that you mean, your studio was obsessed with plastering crappy special effects over everything, besmirching great works of art in the process, then I completely agree.


Were I to obtain a DeLorean with the ability to go back in time, I would have to consider heading to the mid-90s in order to slap some sense into Robert Zemeckis.

He used to be such an awesome director. Now he’s an delusional joke dwelling deep within the uncanny valley. I’m just thankful that his corporate parents realized what many of us have known for years – it’s high time to pull the plug on his operations.

I guess the fallout from the economic apocalypse isn’t ALL bad.

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7 Responses to Robert Zemeckis’ Reign of Terror Is Finally At An End

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  2. Ren says:

    Well I hope you’re happy now that Imagemovers is gone. Afterall, you can now enjoy Dreamworks, more Dreamworks, and even MORE Dreamworks till you wished that SOMEBODY made animated films that did not rely on stupid, mis-shaped characters resembling bathtub toys.

    .. Don’t forget to thank Zemeckis for his trial and error tests, because guess where the technology from the much-praised Avatar came from?

  3. Shogun says:

    YOU ARE TOO MUCH FOR A CRITIC YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE SUPERIOR BUT YOU ARE NOT. TRUE THE POLAR EXPRESS MAY HAVE SOME ANIMATION FLAWS, BUT THE WAY YOU CRITICIZE IS QUITE UNPROFESSIONAL JUST LIKE A WORD OF A STREET BUM IT IS GOOD TO LOOK AND OBSERVE SOMEONE’S WORK AND SAY YOUR COMMENTS BUT IT’S QUITE RUDE TO SAY HE IS LIKE THIS AND THAT. YOU MAY BE HAVE PROOFS ABOUT THIS FLAWS BUT THE WAY YOU CONVEY YOU’RE WORDS ARE QUITE RUDE MORE LIKE OF A GOSSIPING FELLOW IN THE STREETS USING ANY MEANS TO BACKBITE A PERSON.

    • Pete says:

      I AM SPEAKING AT A REASONABLE VOLUME EVERYONE LOOK AT ME MY OPINION HAS WEIGHT BECAUSE I AM TALKING IN ALL CAPS

      Frankly the new Tintin movie has reopened the motion-capture gash for me. They all look dead and soulless, and it doesn’t fit in any way shape or form. If they used stylized characters with mo-cap, that would be one thing, but trying to replicate the human experience is a very different story. And yes, Zemeckis became an ornery bastard about his work who refused to acknowledge how dead everything seemed.

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  5. Nostra says:

    Enjoyable article. Haven’t been a big fan of his newer movies either, so I hope he’ll return to making live action films again.

  6. Mark says:

    What an angry article.

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