According to the 2015 scenes in Back to the Future Part II, we have only three years until the Cubs win the World Series. “They’ve gotta get on it!” that film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, says with a laugh, adding that his 1989 sequel has proven pretty accurate. “So far, we’re batting 50-50 on those predictions. That’s not bad.”
Spoken like a man whose films have always looked to the future of cinema. Zemeckis’s technological experimentation has resulted in both major hits (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump) and the occasional dud (Death Becomes Her, A Christmas Carol).
The Chicago native, 61, who grew up in Roseland and attended Fenger High School, is slightly hoarse a few hours before his new movie, Flight, closes the Chicago International Film Festival. The film marks his return to live action after a decade of motion-capture work (including The Polar Express and Beowulf), although Zemeckis thinks that angle has been overplayed. It was never, as has been widely reported, his intention to abandon human beings altogether. I suggest that Flight even opens with a sort of visual joke: The first scene includes full-frontal nudity—as if to say, You want a non-motion-capture body? Zemeckis looks amused. “The first shot of the movie is actually a very elaborate CG shot—it’s all complete painting,” he says, disavowing any “hidden agenda.”
An unexpected and bold film, unusually thorny for a Hollywood drama, Flight centers on Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot who, after a mechanical malfunction, makes a miraculous crash-landing, saving 96 of 102 people on board. This is despite the fact that he’s flying drunk and high on cocaine. An alcoholic, Whip isn’t the face of heroism the public expects. However brave his actions, he’s still culpable.
“The hardest thing to do in movies nowadays is not telegraph everything,” Zemeckis says. “Audiences just have too much movie education. Everyone starts writing their own movie, and unfortunately most of the time they write the movie that they see, and then they go, ‘Oh, I knew that was going to happen.’ ”
One striking aspect of the film is its depiction of bureaucracy. With Bruce Greenwood as a rep for the pilots union and Don Cheadle as the criminal attorney the union hires to shepherd Whip through a federal hearing, Flight unfolds in a complex universe where interested parties collude not to protect the public, but to sweep Whip’s problems under the rug. There’s the crash-landing itself: No other pilot is able to replicate it in simulations. Zemeckis notes that Whip’s actions, which include inverting the plane, are “nothing a sober man would have done.”
The crash scene is gripping. “I was very serious about it,” says the director, who has piloting experience. “I wanted it to be clear. I wanted people, if they didn’t have any pilot training, that they would understand what was going on.”
While this cleanly cut action sequence stands apart from the jumbled editing and indiscriminate CGI now prevalent in event movies, Zemeckis—who did plenty of tweaking on Flight, including adjusting timing between his actors—is quick to defend digital experimentation. “When they invented the Steadicam, every movie had to have a fight in a stairwell,” Zemeckis notes with a laugh. “Whenever there’s a new thing, it’s abused until artists realize what a Steadicam as a tool can be. And now I defy people to be able to see Steadicam shots, because we know how to do them and make them invisible.” Restless by temperament, he’s tried to stay ahead of the curve. “It’d be easy to do Roger Rabbit today,” he points out. “You could put the rabbit anywhere you wanted.”
In the ongoing debate over exhibition format, Zemeckis stands firmly with digital projection over celluloid, calling it ridiculous that “a hundred-year-old technology” would be around as long as it has. “I hate film,” the filmmaker says. “I hate watching it. The only place I can stand to watch film projected anymore is at the Academy, where they tighten the gate every two hours,” referring to a projector adjustment.
Although Zemeckis is known for being protean, a small but vocal cadre of critics (especially New York Times DVD columnist Dave Kehr) regards him as a serious artist. Indeed, it’s possible to make a case for Whip’s alcoholism as a continuation of Zemeckis’s studies of delusion: In Forrest Gump, the protagonist fails to recognize the significance of events around him; in Cast Away, Tom Hanks invents his own world. When I broach the point, Zemeckis looks intently, then smiles. “I don’t know any filmmaker who can deconstruct their own work,” he says. “I’m sure there’s something in there, but you know, isn’t that sort of the way it is with any art form?”
Flight opens Friday 2.