Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back to the Past, Part II

By all accounts, 2011 has been a disastrous year for Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis. The Walt Disney Company shuttered his movie studio, ImageMovers Digital, and pulled the plug on his dream project, a 3D update of the classic Beatles animated movie, Yellow Submarine. To top it all off, his latest “mocap” movie, Mars Needs Moms (directed by Simon Wells and produced by Zemeckis), is one of the biggest flops of all time. Sheesh!

For me, this is the best thing that could have ever happened to Zemeckis. You see, I want to watch a Robert Zemeckis Film, and there hasn’t been a new Robert Zemeckis Film for almost 12 years now. The last one was Cast Away, released back in good old 1955 – oops, I mean 2000. Since then, Zemeckis’ filmography has consisted entirely of mocap movies, which involve taking perfectly capable real-life actors and using computer animation to make them look like zombies carved out of wood. Zemeckis needs to discontinue this dead-end obsession with mocap post-haste and get back to his roots: live-action, baby.

So how did we get here? How did one of Hollywood’s most popular whiz kids, who made some of the most beloved movies of the last three decades (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), end up getting bitch-slapped by Disney and derided by fans? (“Wasting his talents for 10 years straight now” is typical of the user comments on his IMDb page.)

Here’s the story of how Zemeckis came to make his first mocap movie. Tom Hanks gave him a copy of the 1985 children’s book, The Polar Express. Inspired by Chris Van Allsburg’s beautiful paintings, the director set about trying to find a way to bring those paintings to life. He met with Ken Ralston, his special-effects go-to guy since Back to the Future, and they decided the best solution would be an animation technique known as motion capture. The filmmakers successfully brought Van Allsburg’s paintings to the big screen, but the audience saw something Zemeckis apparently didn’t: in mocap movies, the characters look downright creepy. They remind me of something Clint Eastwood’s secret service agent said about John Malkovich’s would-be assassin in the 1993 thriller In the Line of Fire: “The eyes are dead. You can always tell a person by their eyes.”

Zemeckis has been in denial about this fundamental flaw for years now. Around the time Polar Express came out, he sat down for an hour-long discussion with Charlie Rose, during which the following extraordinary exchange took place:

CR: Eye color. Can you show eye color?
RZ: Oh yeah.
CR: So eyes is not a problem?
RZ: Eyes is not a problem.

You’re wrong, Zemeckis. Eyes is a fucking problem. This is like Cinematography 101: “The eyes are the window to the soul.” No soul = no movie.

After Polar Express, Zemeckis could have acknowledged mocap’s limitations and moved on. But he’s become positively obsessed with it, and I think I know why. On the DVD commentary track for I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Zemickis’ directorial debut), he confesses that the thing that most excited him about that movie was recreating the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, by using lookalike actors and clever camera angles. It’s the same creative impulse that put Bob Hoskins in the same scenes as a cartoon rabbit, and allowed Tom Hanks to share the screen with John F. Kennedy. More than any other filmmaker working today, Zemeckis is enthralled by the technical process, the building-castles-in-the-sand quality of making movies. For him, the complete control that mocap provides must be like the ultimate sandbox.

For years, I held out hope that the technology would advance to the point where Zemeckis could have his cake and eat it, too. But Mars Needs Moms – released a full seven years after Polar Express – is the worst mocap movie ever. (In FX years, seven is a lifetime.) It’s about a boy who sets off for the Red Planet after his mom is kidnapped by aliens. That story makes no sense in mocap, because the mother in this movie is a nightmarish pod person straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This kid should be RELIEVED his pod mommy is gone.

Of the three mocap movies that Zemeckis has directed, Beowulf is my favorite. The script is by far the best the director has had to work with in the mocap years, benefitting greatly from Neil Gaiman’s love of the English language (“The sea is my mother; she would never take me back to her murky womb!”). The movie is exceptionally well cast, even though it’s a little dispiriting to see actors as great as Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich robbed of their vitality. There’s also a lot to like about Polar Express, if only because it serves up a wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s deeply embedded in American popular culture: a magical trip to the North Pole, followed by a chance meeting with Santa Claus. But A Christmas Carol is a disaster; here, Zemeckis made the mistake of assuming we could actually feel affection for these inhuman automatons, and by this point his obsession with Christmas bordered on self-parody.

The mocap years haven’t been a total washout, but do any of these movies come even close to the level of Back to the Future? Could Zemeckis ever reach those heights with mocap? True believers often cite James Cameron’s Avatar as an example of the technique’s potential. Ah, but we’re not really seeing people in the mocap scenes in Avatar, are we? We’re seeing aliens and earthling avatars. That context makes up for the technique’s not-quite-human aesthetic.

Zemeckis’ passion for FX has always been one of the coolest things about him. His mocap movies are an extension of the modern digital wave that began with Cameron’s Abyss and captured the imagination of the world with films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Zemeckis contributed some of the most dramatically rewarding and technically astonishing films of that era, but he’s simply gone too far; his mocap movies are like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels on steroids. There’s gotta be a happy medium between the totality of mocap and, say, Werner Herzog hiring a bunch of Peruvian laborers to pull a 300-ton steamship over a hill for a key scene in Fitzcarraldo. Herzog may have been insane (I think he probably was; decide for yourself by watching Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams), but the spectacular results are up on the screen. What does Zemeckis have to show for his obsession, which has swallowed up nearly a dozen years of his professional life? For his far-out cinematic feat, Herzog dubbed himself “Conquistador of the Useless.” That’s exactly what Zemeckis has become: Conquistador of the Useless.

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