Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to Best

A nostalgic trip through decades of ingenuity, all without a DeLorean


Robert Zemeckis has taken us back in time and forward into the future over the last 45 years. Have we grown tired of the traveling? Of course not. Granted, there was that brief period when he became a little too obsessed with motion capturing, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Bottom line: The Chicago-born filmmaker is responsible for a catalogue stocked with classic films.

Yet also one brimming with ingenuity. Now, Disney had previously mixed animation and live action, as early as 1964’s Mary Poppins and 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but Zemeckis took it to a different level by the late ’80s. A short gasp later, he was inserting Tom Hanks into historical footage, remote islands, and eventually Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express.

Decades later, he’s still turning heads with his cutting-edge filmmaking. His latest feature,The Walk, rebuilds the World Trade Center and finds Joseph Gordon-Levitt recreating Philippe Petit’s unbelievable high-wire stunt. Before you head out to witness the magic, take your own walk through our ranking of Zemeckis’ filmography.

You’ll agree, you’ll disagree, but one thing’s for sure: While director Craig Zwibel may claim Z is for Zachariah, we’d argue that Z is for Zemeckis.

Justin Gerber

16. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

i wanna hold your hand Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime:
1 hr. 44 min.

Press Release: 1964. Beatlemania. Ed Sullivan. Naturally, some precocious teens wanna meet the Fab Four. Hijinks ensue.

Cast: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Wendy Jo Sperber

Awards: No.

Writer’s Room: Here is the beginning of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s long writing relationship.

The Amblin Connection: Did you know that Steven Spielberg can get millions just by slapping his name on a film as its Executive Producer without having to contribute all that much to a production? Ask yourself, “What exactly did he give to the 1994 Flinstones?” Likely nothing. But the money hot tubs and lobster dinners? Oh, baby. Anyway, this was Spielberg’s first effort as a producer, and essentially he got to welcome Zemeckis to Hollywood. Not bad.

The Beatle$: I Wanna Hold Your Hand has the distinction of having 17 original Beatles recordings on the soundtrack, a real feat. And the budget for this film was like $2.7 million, which is roughly 2.7 Beatles songs on a soundtrack today, right?

Analysis: Cute Beatles songs aside, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a slapdash first film that’s just not all that funny. Zemeckis could brag about the music, but he’d move on to many better things.

–Blake Goble

15. Beowulf (2007)

beowulf Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 55 min.

Press Release: The Danish king Hrothgar offers a reward to the hero who can slay Grendel, the monstrous demon wreaking nightly havoc on his mead hall. The Geat warrior Beowulf answers his call in this tale based on the Old English epic poem.

Cast: Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright, Angelina Jolie, Brendan Gleeson

Awards: ASCAP Award for Top Box Office Films (Alan Silvestri)

Writer’s Room: English-born author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman is a legend in his own right, but he and co-writer Roger Avary met their match in trying to wrestle a disjointed epic poem into a relatively seamless action-adventure film. The pair took a number of creative liberties, many of which focused on blurring the line between man and monster. Grendel becomes Hrothgar’s child and the dragon becomes Beowulf’s, giving Zemeckis an opportunity to explore whether the demons or the humans are the true root of evil.

Great Scott! Though it’s based on an ancient poem, Beowulf stands out as perhaps the greatest technical achievement in Zemeckis’ body of work. This irony can get awkward at times, as some of the film’s action scenes exist solely to take advantage of the 3D format and do so at the expense of the spirit of the original work. With that said, Beowulf remains one of the most successful examples of motion-capture animation, a style that can seem stiff or just plain weird if not executed with care. Here, the style allows for some of the poem’s more fantastical elements (like the watery lair of Grendel’s mother) to take on a shimmering life that oscillates between the familiar and the imaginary.

Uncanny Valley: The motion capture technology works better with some characters than with others. Jolie’s watery demon and Glover’s sniveling Grendel are fantastical enough to make it work, but Malkovich and Hopkins just look like slightly off-putting versions of their real selves. It’s not as disconcerting as The Polar Express, but it’s also a good reason why we haven’t seen many films like this since Beowulf.

3D Graphics, 2D Women: Beowulf’s graphics may be state-of-the-art, but its female characters are still stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s distressing to see Wright, as Queen Wealtheow, reduced to solemnly staring off into the middle distance as she’s saddled with one crappy husband after another. Jolie, on the other hand, plays the familiar and problematic role of temptress, her body objectified so blatantly that sex becomes her entire purpose. The camera cares as much for her ass as it does her face, and the script barely tries to make the rest of her as round as her perfectly animated breasts.


Analysis: Despite its box office success, Beowulf is one of those films that beg the question, “How did this get made?” Converting an Old English poem into a 3D blockbuster is an idea based in either genius or madness; here, it’s a little bit of both. Beowulf succeeds as a popcorn flick even as it fails as poetry.

–Collin Brennan

14. Used Cars (1980)

used cars Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 53 min.

Press Release: Tits, ass, and local celebrity are what slick used car salesman Rudy Russo hopes will put his political career on the fast track, not to mention save his native lot from his conniving used car rival across the street.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Deborah Harmon, Gerrit Graham, Joe Flaherty

Awards: DVD Premiere Award nomination for Best Audio Commentary, Library Release (Kurt Russell, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale). This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard Kurt Russell cackle his way through The Thing’s zany audio commentary.

Writer’s Room: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s third collaboration as a writing team, Used Cars found the duo in step with the industry. Here, Zemeckis and Gale deviated from the satire and nostalgia of their early work for the kind of raunchy, sprawling comedy that came to define the early ’80s.

Great Scott! Zemeckis loves his cars, doesn’t he? What could’ve been a straightforward, character-based comedy turns into a rollicking adventure in the third act, with a Mad Max-style desert caravan, breakneck stunts, and the still-impressive sight of a rusty clunker leaping a speeding locomotive. Sure, it lacks the grandeur of the vehicular chaos in The Blues Brothers (also released in 1980), but Zemeckis was also working with less than a third of John Landis’ $27 million. A prime example of a budget well-spent, Used Cars does for a crusty Mercury Montego what Furious 7 just did with the Lykan HyperSport.

Silence and Clutter: Zemeckis has a sizable talent for conveying exposition and context through environment, artifacts, and action. Just as we learn so much about Back to the Future’s Marty McFly and Doc Brown through the opening slow pan, we meet Used Cars’ Rudy as he wordlessly rejiggers odometers and glues bumpers onto cars with bubble gum. All the while, Zemeckis establishes a vivid sense of place with sad vinyl pennants, swirling dust, and enough rust to to fell the Iron Giant. A simple glance at the much shinier rival lot across the street tells us everything we need to know about this world. That’s savvy filmmaking.

Politically Incorrect: And I’m not referring to the script’s jabs at Jimmy Carter. Used Cars is ugly. Nasty racial and gender caricatures abound, uttered by an irredeemable band of dipshits that not even Kurt Russell’s golden grin can humanize. Cultural insensitivity was part and parcel of ’80s comedy, but few pushed the boundaries of good taste like Used Cars. Just try stomaching the scene where a woman is “accidentally” stripped nude, then oogled, groped, and filmed against her will by a gaggle of leering creeps. It’s played for comedy, by the way.

Analysis: In a positive review for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby says that, aside from Airplane, Used Cars “has more laughs in it than any film of the summer.” For context, the summer of 1980 also saw the release of Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers, oft-quoted classics that persevered into the modern age in ways Used Cars hasn’t. I imagine Used Cars was funnier in the ’80s, when cads were lovable, xenophobia was common, and a wild party could be one’s Alpha and Omega. But, in spite of the despicable script, there’s an urgency to Zemeckis’ direction, a sputtery propulsion that becomes irresistible once Russell starts shepherding his herd of junkers across the Arizona wastelands. Ultimately, it’s not humor this film should be remembered for, but adventure. That’s clearly where Zemeckis’ heart is, especially once you consider that he followed Used Cars up with the swashbuckling Romancing the Stone.

–Randall Colburn

13. The Polar Express (2004)

polar express Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 40 min.

Press Release: Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s classic, contemporary children’s book, The Polar Express is about a magical train that takes children to the North Pole so Santa Claus can assign presents based on a points system while looking at them with his dead, glazed eyes.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Leslie Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye

Awards: Three Oscar nominations, including Best Original Song, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.

Writer’s Room: Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. adapted Van Allsubrg’s book.

Great Scott! $165 million dollars to produce this and utilize motion capture technology, which records the exact physical movements of actors with little white balls on unitards … and Zemeckis couldn’t get Tom Hanks’ eyes right?!

A Zeme-Christmas: In the last act, the kids make it to the North Pole, a golden city populated by elves and the big red man himself. The design of the city was based on the Pullman plant in Chicago near where Zemeckis grew up.

Bosom Buddy: Okay, this is so lame, but it has to be mentioned. The little lonely kid? The one that looks like Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle? He was played by none other than Peter “Tom Hanks’ Bosom Buddy” Scolari himself. After all, CGI is a great way to make an actor look younger.

Analysis: The Polar Express is a tale of two creepy things. One, it’s a spookier, colder, and kind of oddball holiday film. Tonally, it’s an interesting shake-up of the usual dead-eyed Christmas film. But that’s the second thing: Those damn dead digital eyes. Zemeckis unwittingly made a cult classic that the canon has seen fit to cringe over since release, and the deteriorating visual effects and too smooth human animation are why people remember this film. Maybe we’ll get over it in time, but for now, it’s a unique kind of dead-eyed Christmas caper. One where the characters have quite literally dead-looking eyes!

–Blake Goble

12. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Death-Becomes-HerRuntime: 1 hr. 44 min.

Press Release: Betrayal, greed, and vanity fuel this horror comedy about a pompous Broadway actress, an aspiring writer, and a bewildered plastic surgeon who all struggle with the perils of immortality. What happens when the most narcissistic people are granted eternal life?

Cast: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini

Awards: Lackluster reviews aside, the film’s inventive visual effects won an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Saturn award. Because, really, what other film had talking women with holes in their bellies or necks twisted like pretzels? Rossellini also snagged a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, leaving her co-stars Streep and Willis in the dust. Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe, but lost in a rare moment for the celebrity.

Writer’s Room: Death Becomes Her was a conjoined effort between Apartment Zero writers Martin Donovan and David Koepp. Donovan was a longtime TV writer, having written for various series throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, while Koepp was just getting his feet wet in Hollywood, coming off of the screenplay for the cruelly underrated Toy Soldiers. In the end, Koepp would come out on top, attracting the eyes of Steven Spielberg, who hired him to polish off the script for Jurassic Park, kicking off a long-running relationship between the two.

Great Scott! Industrial Light & Magic clearly had some fun turning a mildly forgettable film into something worth talking about. Practical effects and digital magic united to sell the rampant body horror. The cracks, the peels, the snaps: They’re all very gross and effective, mostly jarring for its off-key realism and mostly humorous for its outlandish proceedings. Today, the effects don’t exactly hold up — especially that cringeworthy shot of Streep’s head squishing against the marble stairs — but since the film acts like it’s cut from the same cloth as Looney Tunes, it doesn’t matter. It’s all one big spooky cartoon that we’re supposed to laugh at … perhaps, anxiously.

Death Becomes Goldie: During one fight scene, Streep’s shovel actually sliced open Hawn’s cheek, inevitably leaving a faint scar. That’s a nightmare situation for any Hollywood persona, and likely one of the reasons Streep doesn’t look upon this film with rose-tinted lenses. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she digressed on having to work in an effects-heavy production, admitting: “My first, my last, my only. I think it’s tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery — they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it’s not fun to act to a lampstand. ‘Pretend this is Goldie, right here! Uh, no, I’m sorry, Bob, she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won’t match her neck!’ It was like being at the dentist.” Guess that’s why she wasn’t called up for Beowulf.

willis death becomes her Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to Best

Yippie Kay Yay, Mr. Willis: Death Becomes Her came at a weird time in Willis’ career. A year prior, the everyman action star swung into the box office with the magnificent bomb Hudson Hawk, following that catastrophe up with a couple of forgettable productions like Robert Benton’s gangster drama Billy Bathgate and Tony Scott’s football thriller The Last Boy Scout. (To be fair, the great Shane Black wrote Boy Scout and it’s since become something of a cult classic.) So, stepping into the impotent shoes of Dr. Ernest Menville, and replacing Kevin Kline no less, was a pretty bold move for the actor, who at the time only had two Die Hards and Look Who’s Talking to his box office name. Yet, Willis rose to the challenge and delivered a physically comical performance, always appearing as if he were about to implode from anxiety or contempt.

Analysis: Death Becomes Her is a rather confusing film. There’s an inherent menace to everything that’s going on, but Zemeckis overwhelms any horror he’s constructed with a campy tone that becomes way too obnoxious by the second half. It’s telling that Zemeckis was executive producing Tales from the Crypt at the time, as that show also wore out its cautionary message halfway through each episode. Here’s the difference: Death Becomes Her isn’t 30 minutes, it’s 104 minutes, and not even the flashy immortal freak show can make this interesting for more than 45. What also doesn’t help is the film’s flaccid PG-13 rating, which suppresses all of the blatant hyper-sexualized tension, as if to suggest that the film’s target demographic was always “scandalous” grandmothers and prepubescent teenage boys. Having said that, there’s a nostalgic charm to be had in watching Hawn and Streep rip each other apart, both literally and metaphorically.

–Michael Roffman

11. A Christmas Carol (2009)

a christmas crol Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 26 min.

Press Release: The name’s Scrooge. Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a Victorian-era moneylender whose calloused, cheapskate ways earn him a three-piece night of hauntings.

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Bob Hoskins

Awards: Favorite Voice from an Animated Movie at the Kids Choice Awards for Jim Carrey. What, you doubt the validity of this award?

Writer’s Room: Zemeckis wrote the script based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel himself.

Great Scott! This marked the capping of Zemeckis’ motion capture technology, and while Zemeckis will be remembered for hitching a post and developing a specific technique, this was his third strike commercially with the supposedly humanizing tech. People didn’t want the shiny, inventive, hard to comprehend style after all. Pity. Wait, no. We don’t miss the creepy, rubbery people of these CG films! Be gone computer monsters! Uh, so yeah, after this film, Zemeckis took a leave from the mo-cap game.

Back to the Uncanny Valley: Zemeckis was so into his motion capture universe that there are little Pixarian details and through-lines shared between Christmas Carol and Polar Express. Specifically, Polar Express features a Scrooge marionette that would become the basis for the look of Scrooge in this film.

Man of a Million Faces: This might be a record for roles in a single film, at least for Carrey, but the Canadian comic mastermind played a whopping nine parts in Christmas Carol. Carrey got to play Scrooge, Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge as a Young Boy, Scrooge as a Teenage Boy, Scrooge as a Young Man, Scrooge as a Middle Aged Man, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. None of them talked out of their ass.

Analysis: A Christmas Carol is still often downplayed as another one of Zemeckis’ cheap tricks, and technologically, the film’s a dated dabble in digital. But, it’s so much stronger than Polar Express; those five years of research and development helped Zemeckis maximize his technical look and feel. Christmas Carol is an extremely visual and literal adaptation. It’s a really faithful project as a result of Zemeckis’ literal take on Dickens’ haunting holiday prose.

–Blake Goble

10. What Lies Beneath (2000)

what lies beneath Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 10 min.

Press Release: Claire believes there is a ghost haunting her in the nice Vermont home she shares with her husband. Does the next-door neighbor have something to do with it? Boo!

Cast: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar

Awards: Nothing major, unless you count the Blockbuster Video Awards. If you do, Pfeiffer and Ford both won. It’s sad to think that 10 years from now, if a teenager stumbles upon this feature, they won’t have any idea what a “Blockbuster Video” is. Will we even be here 10 years from now? The mind wanders…

Writer’s Room: Co-story/screenwriting credit goes to Agent Coulson himself: Clark Gregg. That’s right, everyone’s favorite (?) S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has a few credits to his name that have nothing to do with performance. In addition to Beneath, Gregg wrote and directed an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke starring Sam Rockwell, and pulled a Warren Beatty by writing, directing, and starring in 2013’s Trust Me. Trust me when I say you’ve never heard of it.

Great Scott! Nothing too innovative here to speak of. The movie pretty much plays as a by-the-numbers haunted house thriller until…

Dial “H” for Hitchcock: …the final 30 minutes. If you’re reading this and haven’t seen Beneath, prepare for some heavy spoilers. As soon as Claire discovers her husband Norman is the killer of the woman haunting her, the rest of the movie is suspenseful as hell. The entire sequence in the bathtub makes up for most of the 90 minutes preceding it, including the true nature of Norman’s personality, Claire’s paralyzation wearing off just in time to drain the tub and stop from drowning, and Ford waking up soon after.

“Okay, Tom. You take a break. I’m going to make a whole other movie.” After shooting all of Tom Hanks’ scenes as a healthy man in Cast Away (well, healthier), production stopped in an effort to allow Hanks enough time to lose weight for the island scenes. Instead of taking a break with his family, Zemeckis opted to make a ghost story starring Pfeiffer and Ford. When all was finished, it was back to the island for the rest of Cast Away. No rest for the wicked, and apparently that applies to Robert Zemeckis.

Analysis: What Lies Beneath is an okay movie that saves itself in the final quarter. It has the rare occurrence of Ford playing the role of a bad guy, and as for that aforementioned bathtub scene … what else can I say? The lead-up hurts the movie, with more jump scares than you can throw an I Know What You Did Last Summer at. At least the next-door neighbor is played by the great James Remar. Love that.

–Justin Gerber

9. Flight (2012)

flight poster Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 18 min.

Press Release: Whip Whitaker is a great pilot with a bad drinking problem. After he saves 100+ people by landing a malfunctioning airliner, a routine drug test reveals he was heavily intoxicated during the accident. As you would imagine, it gets complicated.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo

Awards: Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Original Screenplay (John Gatins), as well as Best Actor nominations for Washington from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s Guild, Chicago Film Critics Association, and the BET Awards, among others. He won with the African-American Film Critics Association and Black Reel Awards.

Writer’s Room: Three separate events coalesced to form the script for Flight. One was the crash of Alaska Airlines 261, which played out in much the same manner as the crash that defines the film’s first act. The second was a real-life conversation screenwriter John Gatins had with a troubled pilot, a chat that caused Gatins to realize just how much confidence we put into the people who operate aircraft. The last was Gatins’ own battle with alcoholism. It apparently took the author 10 years to finish the screenplay, which isn’t surprising considering that’s about how long Flight feels (and the original draft was apparently longer … oy). Zemeckis and Washington believed in the story so much that they accepted a tenth of their common salaries.

Great Scott! Flight lives and dies on the plane crash that happens in the first act. It’s magic, this scene, with Zemeckis oscillating nimbly between the intimacy of the cockpit, the horror of the cabin, and nauseating POV shots of the nosedive. He filmed a similar crash in his last live-action movie, 2000’s Cast Away, but here he ups the ante by not depicting a straight crash, but rather the risky tricks a pilot has to pull out in a situation, which includes literally flying the plane upside down. When this happens, Zemeckis masterfully evokes the stomach-flipping sensations of everyone on board, with one unconscious crew member crashing down to the plane’s ceiling. It’s queasy and beautiful and absolutely satisfying, one of Zemeckis’ best onscreen moments.

All Hail Denzel: There’s a scene about halfway through Flight where Whip visits his ex-wife and son, a 15-year old he calls Knuckles. Up until this point, we’ve only heard Whip talk of his son with pride and regret, but his son’s reaction to his presence is pure defensiveness. Whip reacts to his son’s aggression by roping him into violent hugs while laughing through gritted teeth. Knuckles repeatedly tries to shove Whip away, but Whip holds on for dear life. Washington’s choices here are so bizarre, his unsteady gait and chilling cackles creating a complex web of emotions that seem to crumble and congeal before our eyes. It feels dangerous, this scene, and serves as a prime example of just how much Whip is attempting to drown the reality that threatens to shatter his delusion. Flight nabbed Washington his first Oscar nomination since 2001’s Training Day, and it was well-deserved.

*Looks At Watch* According to Zemeckis, not a single scene was left on the cutting room floor. That’s a shame because Flight is so, so, so, so long. It’s not the 2.5-hour running time, necessarily, but the film’s circuitous route. Like anyone struggling with an addiction, Whip repeatedly vows to clean up before relapsing almost immediately. It’s this cycle that eventually breaks most addicts and sends them to rehab. Flight is almost too true-to-life in depicting this, resulting in a second act that dispels nearly all of the film’s momentum.

Analysis: Flight begins with one of the most thrilling, stomach-churning plane crashes ever put on film, then spends two more hours watching a man struggle with alcoholism. Sure, thematic threads connect the two, but the film’s shift in focus feels weirdly deceiving for viewers who just had their heart rate piqued in such a fashion. There’s plenty of gripping scenes throughout, due mostly to Washington’s performance and Zemeckis’ talent for creating tableau. But the ending is pure pandering, and feels cheap in light of the grittiness that came before. Flight is by no means a bad film. You’ll just want to know what you signed up for.

–Randall Colburn

8. Contact (1997)

1997 contact poster1 Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 30 min.

Press Release: After years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, Dr. Ellie Arroway receives a mysterious radio message from the Vega star system.

Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, David Morse

Awards: Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Saturn Awards for Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Jena Malone), ASCAP Award for Top Box Office Films (Alan Silvestri)

Writer’s Room: Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer of Cosmos fame, wrote a treatment for the film with wife Ann Druyan in 1980. Obviously, Sagan was very close to the source material and incorporated many elements of astrophysics, including Kip Thorne’s study of wormhole space travel. Druyan worked with him to round out the human elements in the story, particularly the conflict between scientific and religious interests. Dr. Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Dr. Arroway in the film) also served as a consultant on the story, which went through so much developmental strife that Sagan decided to publish his own novel version in 1985.

Great Scott! Contact’s opening scene is one of its most memorable. It’s a computer-generated sequence that zooms outward from Earth into the cosmos, and the effect is both dizzying and humbling. At the time of the film’s release, this three-minute sequence was the longest of its kind for a live-action film.

The Clintonian Controversy: Instead of casting a fictional president, Zemeckis decided to cut up real-life footage of Bill Clinton and insert it into his film. It was a stroke of genius, but also one of crazy luck — Clinton had just given a speech in which he addressed recently discovered evidence of fossilized Martian bacteria, and his remarks were generic enough to work with the film’s script. The White House was none too pleased with this, but you’ve got to admire Zemeckis’ audacity (and be thankful they didn’t send the Secret Service after him).

A Cosmic Connection: When he’s not driving a Lincoln around town, McConaughey can’t help but look up at the stars and philosophize. At least that’s what we have to conclude about the golden-haired actor, who shows up in both Contact and Christopher Nolan’s like-minded Interstellar. But the two films have more in common than McConaughey and a preoccupation with alien intelligence. Lynda Obst produced both movies and collaborated with Sagan on his original film treatment way back in 1980.

Analysis: Contact wasn’t even the best film about aliens in 1997 (that honor belongs to Men in Black), but it remains a thoughtful and occasionally profound look at what might happen if we do encounter extraterrestrial intelligence. Few films treat science fiction with this much heart, but what else do you expect from the director of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future?

–Collin Brennan

7. Back to the Future Part II (1989)

bttf 2 Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 48 min.

Press Release: After returning safely from 1955, Marty McFly is whisked away to the future by Doc Brown in a mission to save his children. Trouble ensues, however, when Biff Tannen gets a hold of the Delorean and shakes up the past with over 50 years of sports trivia at his disposal.

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Flea

Awards: Although nominated, the second time travel adventure lost the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. However, the effects team walked away with both a Saturn and a BAFTA, while Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson cleaned up shop at the 1990 Kids’ Choice Awards, where they won for Favorite Movie Actor and Favorite Movie Actress, respectively. Good job, kids.

Writer’s Room: Despite the whole “You gotta come back with me!” cliffhanger of an ending, Zemeckis never intended to make a sequel for Back to the Future. Money talks, though, and seeing that the time travel adventure was the highest grossing film of 1985, you bet your ass Universal wanted another joy ride in the Delorean. So, Bob Gale hopped behind the typewriter once again and spent a good two years carving out a story that could measure up to his original diamond script.

What slowly came to fruition was Paradox, an overwhelming and sprawling epic that would take Marty and Doc into the past, the present, and the future. A number of drafts would ensue, some involving a groovy trip to 1967 that would later evolve into a return to 1955, while casting hiccups, such as Crispin Glover’s involvement (or lack thereof), sparked even more adjustments. Finally, as production neared and Zemeckis wrapped up Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, they had two scripts ready for two films.

Great Scott! You can say that again. Back to the Future Part II was a pretty heavy production, teeming with challenges at every angle. Nobody was left unscathed — from digital effects to set design, wardrobe to make up, casting to performing — everyone had a key role to play in creating these incredible settings that Gale and Zemeckis had envisioned on paper.

Naturally, the tallest hurdle was envisioning a proper 2015. Production designer Rick Carter slaved for months at transforming Hill Valley into the future, and although Zemeckis has stated they never intended to predict the future, simply “just make it funny,” they weren’t too far off. Flying cars and hoverboards remain prototypes, but we do have drones, Skype, and a solid Cubs team.

The greatest achievement, however, were the magicians over at Industrial Light & Magic. Their stellar work with the Vistaglide motion control camera system allowed for multiple incarnations of Marty, Biff, and Jennifer to appear on screen, essentially crowning the software as this film’s own flux capacitor, which makes this movie possible.

Those hoverboards weren’t simple, either. In fact, the entire chase scene around the viewing pond proved incredibly difficult for the stunt team, specifically the sequence when Griff and his goons go crashing into the mall windows. During shooting, stunt performer Cheryl Wheeler, who replaced Lisa McCullough after she expressed serious doubts, suffered a major injury.

“That’s George McFly?”: If you notice, George is hardly in this film, and when he does appear, it’s either quick or old footage, or somewhat obscured (like having him upside down). There’s a reason for this, and it’s as simple as money. Crispin Glover wasn’t happy with the number he was offered, demanded more, the producers balked, and he was replaced by a dolled up Jeffrey Weissman. Author Caseen Gaines spends a lot of time in his recent oral history, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, discussing this conundrum and how it led to on-set tensions and a few unhappy campers. What ultimately came of this madness was a lawsuit on behalf of Glover, who filed on the grounds that they used his likeness for the picture without permission. As such, the Screen Actors Guild now has clauses protecting these rights.

God Bless America: Back when we were celebrating Future Week this past summer, Senior Editor Matt Melis and I discussed at great lengths how Thomas F. Wilson really is the MVP of the series. For three movies, the hulking actor carries so much on his shoulders, and Back to the Future Part II is his peak moment, having to play 1985 Biff, 2015 Biff, Griff, Alternate 1985 Biff, and 1955 Biff. Although you could argue he’s technically playing the same character, that’s not entirely accurate; he changes in each timeline and following every alteration. Somehow, Wilson picked up on every beat, carving out nuanced performances for each iteration. Speaking of which, is there anything more captivating than watching 2015 Biff and 1955 Biff bite each other’s heads off? “Oh-oh, yeah, who are you, Miss Lonelyhearts?” Classic.

It’s Like, That’s Jennifer, But … That’s Not Jennifer: The next victim of casting was Jennifer Parker. After her mother fell ill, Claudia Wells passed on returning to the series, leaving producers to scramble and cast Elizabeth Shue, who looks nothing like Wells and simply adds a serviceable performance to the series. This also forced Zemeckis to re-shoot the original cold open, which, according to Zemeckis, would not have included Jennifer had they known they were making a sequel. Still, Wells returned to the franchise in 2011, when she voiced Jennifer for the Telltale game.

Hey, that’s Flea! :Yes, yes. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist serves as Marty’s own nemesis, Needles, one of the many parallels that Gale installed in the film’s DNA. Yet unlike Biff’s physical bullying towards George, Needles happens to get under Marty’s skin mentally. His taunting is shrugworthy at best, but Marty’s suddenly developed this crazy aversion to name-calling, specifically “chicken.” It leads him down some dark corridors…


rnufr Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to Best

Analysis: Similar to The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future Part II suffers from being the essential bridge between two complete stories. It’s cruel, it’s dark, it’s uncompromising; it’s also exactly where the series needed to go. In the original, Marty says to himself this must all be a dream upon arriving in 1955. This time, he’s stumbled into a nightmare, one that drags him through hell and back. He loses his father, he gains a new one in Biff (yuck), he watches his mother hustle around as a drunken plastic doll, and he’s nearly shot up by various Hill Valley gangs. It’s a dreary departure from the charming original, but the impossible stakes wind up elevating its predecessor and its eventual successor, all by showing how low its characters can go and how high they can actually jump. Plus, hoverboards.

–Michael Roffman

6. Back to the Future Part III (1990)

 Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 58 min.

Press Release: Marty McFly travels back in time to the Wild West to save Doc, help him fall in love, and save him from another evil member of the Tannen family. It’s a wild, wild thrill ride!

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson

Awards: No major awards for the third and final entry of the Back to the Future film series, but I hereby give it the award for “Best Heart”. Congratulations, Zemeckis and co.!

Writer’s Room: Bob Gale at it again! The second and third parts of the trilogy were filmed back-to-back (as Michael Roffman just told you one entry earlier), with the idea for the third being based off a suggestion from none other than Marty himself. The story goes that Zemeckis asked Fox where he would like to time travel, and the young actor replied that he’d like to visit the Old West. Good for him, and as a result, good for us.

Great Scott! The through-line of Doc trying to save Marty’s future is completely tossed aside in Part III. In its place is a role reversal, with Doc becoming the character in true crisis. It was a bold move for Zemeckis and Gale to switch up the stakes and as a result we got to see new dimensions to the mighty lead characters. They even switch catchphrases! Marty exclaims, “Great Scott!” and Doc replies, “This is heavy.”

ZZ West: The original had the tunes of Huey Lewis & The News. Part II had … Sammy Hagar, I guess. For Part III, the boys with the beards and the drummer with the ‘stache were called in. Boys is generous, for ZZ Top were men on their way in from singin’ bout those “Legs” and about 15 years from singing songs with Nickelback. How ‘bout a little “Doubleback”? How does that sound?

Oh, Dear: Well … here.

Analysis: While Back to the Future Part III doesn’t compare to the complicated time travel of its predecessor, it does have something that Part II is missing: heart. That isn’t a slight on that film, it’s just that Part III doesn’t have to be the dark entry of the franchise. It knows it’s going to wrap things up, doesn’t complicate things too much, and has a good time poking fun at the Old West, as well as itself. It’s one of the best cappers to a trilogy we have.

–Justin Gerber

5. Cast Away (2000)

cast away Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 23 min.

Press Release: Fastidious FedEx employee Chuck Noland is stranded on a remote island and left to his own devices when his plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Chris Noth

Awards: Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama (Tom Hanks), Critics’ Choice Award for Best Inanimate Object (Wilson), Academy Award Nominations for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Sound

Writer’s Room: Screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. actually stranded himself on a remote beach for a week as part of his “research” for the film. Dude could have just watched a few episodes of Gilligan’s Island, but to each his own.

Great Scott! As befits a story about survival in primitive conditions, there aren’t any major special effects innovations in Cast Away. That doesn’t mean Zemeckis didn’t rely on a bit of timeline trickery. The film went on a year-long hiatus to allow Hanks to grow out his hair and lose a ton of weight, during which time the same crew worked on What Lies Beneath.

Special Delivery If you think about it, Cast Away is really just a two-and-a-half-hour commercial for FedEx. Has any other company benefitted more from product placement in a movie? The big takeaway is that these guys will get you your damn package, even if it takes surviving on a desolate island for four years.

The Silent Co-Star Sure, Hanks was the one nominated for an Academy Award, but we all know that Wilson was the real star of the movie. Not only did the volleyball provide a great excuse to insert dialogue into a film that would have floundered without it, but he’s also kind of cute. Right? Oh, come on, you definitely cried during that raft scene, tough guy.

Analysis: Cast Away remains one of Zemeckis’ most affecting and human films, and it probably represents the peak in Hanks’ career as an actor. Sure, the story has a tendency to get a bit schmaltzy at times (That ending! Sheesh.), but that’s Zemeckis for you.

–Collin Brennan

4. Romancing the Stone (1984)

Romancing-the-StoneRuntime: 1 hr. 46 min.

Press Release: Joan Wilder is a lonely, successful romance novelist living in New York City. When a strange treasure map falls into her possession, she receives a phone call from her sister, who informs her that she’s been kidnapped in Columbia. The map, of course, is the ransom, yet also the beginning of a wild adventure for Joan.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Alfonso Arau, Manuel Ojeda

Awards: The 42nd Golden Globes named it the Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy and Kathleen Turner the Best Actress for a Musical or Comedy. The unlikely heroine also grabbed a Best Actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Although the film lost its Best Film Editing nomination at the Academy Awards, it did win a Golden Reel Award for its sound editing, while Vince Deadrick, Jr. and Terry Leonard won a Stuntman Award for Most Spectacular Stunt. Sadly, the late Diane Thomas did not win her nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Writers Guild of America.

Writer’s Room: Diane Thomas, who was working as a Malibu waitress, penned the screenplay way back in 1979 — five years before the film’s release. Which is why it must have been frustrating for her when critics tagged the adventurous romantic comedy with comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sadly, the screenplay would be her last, as the aspiring writer died tragically in a car accident following the film’s blockbuster release. The sequel, Jewel of the Nile, was dedicated to her memory.

Great Scott! Romancing the Stone was Zemeckis’ first big hit, grossing over $85 million worldwide on a $10 million dollar budget, which, in turn, made it 20th Century Fox’s sole 1984 hit. However, prior to its release, the troubled director was fired from working on Cocoon, which would end up in the hands of Ron Howard. Good riddance, as this film’s success would open the door for Zemeckis and ol’ pal Gale to finally direct Back to the Future.

Romancing Alan Silvestri: What’s wild is that Silvestri was originally hired to only write a temporary score for the film. But Zemeckis was so moved by the composer’s work, he kept him on board, a decision that sparked one hell of a symbiotic relationship. How so? Well, the guy’s composed every film of Zemeckis’ ever since, including the iconic themes of Back to the Future, which you can hear traces of in this delightful soundtrack. A lot of it admittedly sounds like the work of Jan Hammer, which is wild since it was a year removed from Miami Vice, but the romantic flares, specifically the minimal notes that pop up whenever Turner and Douglas connect, hit the hearts in the same manner as “Marty’s Letter”.

Yo Kathleen!: Somewhere in an alternate universe, Sylvester Stallone is huffing weed fires and rolling down mudslides with Turner. Thank god that never came to fruition, as Douglas fully embodies the heroic smuggler that is Jack T. Colton. The fact that he isn’t all walking muscles and perfection factors heavily into the film’s success. Similar to the male and female dichotomy of The Terminator, which coincidentally surfaced the same year as Romancing the Stone, Douglas and Turner play off each other’s strengths similar to Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton. The difference here is that Turner becomes a trustworthy hero much earlier, a move that proves quite rewarding, as the two handle their respective troubles towards the film’s rousing third act.

Sequels?: Douglas, Turner, and DeVito all returned for 1985’s “less than” sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, while Zemeckis opted out, leaving the director’s chair open for Lewis Teague. It would appear that Bob wasn’t the only one heading for the exit, as Turner also tried to opt out, though 20th Century Fox put the kibosh on that by threatening a $25 million lawsuit. For those looking for a more solid follow-up with the creative elements, check out Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses, which is a spiritual sequel in the sense that Fierce Creatures is a part of A Fish Called Wanda.

Analysis: Although it was more or less a hired job, Zemeckis runs wild with Romancing the Stone, which in hindsight feels like a mission statement on behalf of the then-young director. Obviously, both audiences worldwide and a very cynical Hollywood listened clearly, but how could they not? Turner is magnetic on-screen, while her chemistry with Douglas would go on to define the adult contemporary romantic comedy for years and years to come. There’s magic alive and well in this film, and although it’s easy to see the comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s a whimsical element to Romancing the Stone that makes the adventure rom-com its own thing. To date, nothing has really been able to compare, not even its sequel, but as Huey Lewis sang a year later, “Lightning never strikes twice.”

–Michael Roffman

3. Forrest Gump (1994)

 Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 25 min.

Press Release: An unintelligent, but incredibly well-meaning and rather charming man navigates the second half of 20th century America, finding love, friendship, and meaning in unexpected ways.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson

Awards: Yes: Six Oscars including Best Picture! Forrest Gump also nabbed Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Writing, Best Director for Zemeckis, and Best Actor (Hanks’ second in a row).

Writer’s Room: Forrest Gump was based on Winston Groom’s novel of the same name, and despite that Oscar for screenplay, Groom was a little miffed by the whole ordeal. Payed $350,000 for the rights to his novel, Groom felt shafted when the film went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars and Hanks and Zemeckis received hefty paydays, while Groom was told the film was a flub by Paramount. Google “Hollywood accounting” for a bad, but interesting time. Also, the film and book couldn’t have been more different. Gump was something of an autistic savant in Groom’s novel. In the film, he’s a simpleton. In the book, Gump is ironically gifted at physics and becomes an astronaut. In the film, Gump just felt like runnin’.

Great Scott! Well, it would have been impossible for Hanks’ Gump to shake hands with JFK in 1993, so, digital effects came to the rescue! In depicting Gump’s travels throughout the Baby Boomer era, Zemeckis enlisted the whiz kids of Industrial Light & Magic, headed by Visual Effects Supervisor (and Zemeckis regular) Ken Ralston, to create a series of interactions for Gump. He crosses paths with famed characters like Kennedy, Lennon, Nixon, LBJ, and more, thanks to clever digital effects.

The Best Director: Zemeckis beat out both Barry Sonnenfeld and Terry Gilliam. All talented visualists, but could you imagine Gump in the hands of hardened, fish-eye lens photography geeks like Gilliam and Sonnenfeld?

Gump & Co: A sequel was written in 2001 based on Winston Groom’s follow-up to Gump. Eric Roth wrote the script, but Paramount and the creative team behind the original dropped the project after 9/11. Oh well. But maybe that sequel would have been an odd one-off anyway. In Groom’s sequel, Gump goes meta and meets Tom Hanks in real life, jokes about celebrity, and riffs on the nature of adaptation. Yeah, we already got Adaptation. In 2002. Thanks but no thanks, Groom and co.

Analysis: Forrest Gump, in a way, has become a popular potshot for cynical, revisionist thinking. Fine, it’s a popular film with simple, no, open-ended ideas and themes. Is it about a simpleton that America glorifies and loves while his woman is punished? Maybe. Yet, isn’t this a universally sweet-natured melodrama about a man afloat in the latter half of the past decade, carried by the sheer whimsy, sentimentality, and goodness of his very being? We’d like to think that about Gump. We generally still do. Maybe the lasting appeal is the political flexibility, the nostalgic gallivanting, or the star power and effects. But Forrest Gump is the kind of film where its integrity outweighs any contemporary re-evaluation. Hanks himself has called it “non-judgmental” and “non-political,” and perhaps that’s why Gump has stayed in the consciousness for so long. It’s light as that feather, as heavy as the times its depicts, and unshallow as its leads. Life. Chocolates. Heart. For the love of Gump, this is a wonderful story.

–Blake Goble

2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

who framed roger rabbit us one sheet film poster 1988 robert zemeckis bob hoskins jessica rabbit 5495 p Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 44 min.

Press Release: A drunk, down-on-his luck human detective is on the case of a wacky cartoon rabbit accused of murder. Throw in a human hell-bent on destroying Toontown and a voluptuous cartoon cabaret singer and you’ve got one cah-razy movie.

Cast: Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer (voice), Kathleen Turner (voice), Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Stubby Kaye

Awards: Academy Award winner for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Special Achievement.

Writer’s Room: The screenwriting duo of Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman adapted Gary Wolf’s novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. One interesting change from the page-to-screen is that the original story features comic strip characters as opposed to film/TV cartoon characters. Sometimes change is for the better, and I’ll argue in favor of the filmmakers.

Great Scott! The combination of live action and animation remains a flawless marriage. This didn’t go unnoticed by the Academy, who gave their Special Achievement award to Richard Williams for his animation direction. This was before CGI, so when you remember that this hand-drawn animation had to sync up with the live performances and, most importantly, you believe that Roger Rabbit is interacting with Eddie Valiant (the late Bob Hoskins), it’s not so much a special achievement as it is incredible. Eh, I guess it’s both.

Dueling Ducks: The inclusion of both Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons was a big deal, peaking with the mad dueling pianos scene featuring Daffy Duck and Donald Duck. How did this come to be? The power of producer Steven Spielberg, of course. He also helped convince other minor studios to allow the use of their characters, which is why we also see the likes of Popeye. Speaking of Donald and Daffy, whose team are you on? #teamdonald

V for Jessica: Animators probably get bored, right? That explains why there are so many cases of adult-subliminal frames in a number of animated features (“sex” spelled out in a cloud of dust in The Lion King, racism in Song of the South. Wait.) Roger Rabbit has what is perhaps the most famous example, when on old Laserdiscs you could pause on a certain moment and see Jessica Rabbit’s vagina. Nothing else to say here, and no, I won’t link to it!

Analysis: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? goes beyond its technical wizardry for a strong story that relies on comedy with dark twists. For as fun as it is for most of its runtime, it’s hard to shake the constant references to the violent death of Eddie’s brother, as well as the nightmarish revelation of who Christopher Lloyd is playing. (There are nightmares and then there are nightmares.) With a committed cast playing up their ‘40s film noir characters and an insane amount of energy, Roger Rabbit holds up today. Space Jam and Cool World never came close. “Two bits!!!”

–Justin Gerber

1. Back to the Future (1985)

 Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 56 min.

Press Release: Marty McFly is a restless kid whose family feels apathetic to life, love, and happiness. When local eccentric Doc Brown invents a time machine, Marty is sent back to 1955, the year his parents met. After accidentally complicating matters between his future mother and father, Marty must set things right while also attempting to find a way back … to the future.

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson

Awards: So, so many. We’ll go with the big’uns: Academy Award winner for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing (Charles L. Campbell, Robert R. Rutledge), as well as nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Original Sound. It also was nominated by the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Song. That it only won “Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing” is one of the revered award show’s many, many, many sins.

Writer’s Room: A seed was planted in Bob Gale’s brain when he discovered his father’s high school yearbook and pondered whether the two, as teenagers, would’ve been friends. Gale and Zemeckis’ original idea, however, was deemed too controversial for Disney (that whole incest thing), but surprisingly not raunchy enough for other studios — never underestimate the influence of Porky’s, amirite?

The script eventually found a home at Universal, but it underwent significant changes from there, many of which limited the film’s scope in favor of deepening Marty’s relationship with George and Lorraine. This is a very, very good thing, as these changes are what kept Back To the Future from becoming Back to the Future Part II.

bttf script Ranking: Every Robert Zemeckis Movie from Worst to Best

Back To the Future is, in so many ways, a perfect script. No scene is wasted, the stakes are astronomical, and every action is infused with purpose and sound logic. Also, the care and pace with which the relationships are formed — especially Marty’s relationship with 1955 George and Lorraine — allow for a level of pathos that’s as uncomfortable as it is moving. Every screenwriting class should teach this script. Also, FYI, an early memo from Universal head Sid Sheinberg wanted to call the movie Spaceman From Pluto (lol).

Great Scott! All in all, there are only 32 special effects shots in the entirety of Back to the Future, and most of them were executed using fairly low-budget techniques. Simple strobes, liquid nitrogen, and old-fashioned gasoline were manipulated in post to help create Einstein’s jaunt in the Delorean, probably the film’s most wowza special effects centerpiece. What’s more impressive is the 1950s version of Hill Valley, which was built from scratch based on photos culled from old issues of Life, then distressed to depict the grungy ’80s. It’s important to note that, in the mid-’80s, the ’50s weren’t necessarily considered “period” yet, and, as such, didn’t immediately summon a particular aesthetic. BTTF, at least to some minor degree, very likely contributed to the images we now associate with ’50s fashion and culture.

Reagan As Hell: BTTF has fun imagining how somebody in the ‘50s would react to hearing “the actor” Ronald Reagan was president in 1985, but The Jelly Bean Man’s influence can also be found elsewhere. When Marty returns to 1985, he discovers his actions have unwittingly improved the quality of life for his entire family. Their house, once a rundown suburban hovel, now brims with pastels and plush, modern furniture. His brother, a fry jockey at the beginning of the film, now “always wears a suit to the office.” His sister, frumpy at first, is both desired by men and in possession of some new, high-end threads. George and Lorraine are happier, too, in no small part because George’s writing has netted them some serious dough. They even buy Marty that big-ass truck he wanted! You could credit some of the family’s newfound happiness to George’s decision to pursue his writing, but the implication is that the family is better off because of their financial stability. The suburban oasis, the steady jobs, the disposable income, they’re all distinctly part of the American Dream as defined by the Reagan administration.

Soundtrack: Huey Lewis is more important to this movie than you think. In BTTF’s 1985, songs like “The Power of Love” and “Back In Time” are everywhere: trailing Marty as skateboards to school, blaring from Marty’s guitar during the talent show, and then rousing him from sleep near the film’s end. In BTTF, Huey is 1985; hell, in 2015 he still is. Like Marty’s photographed siblings, however, Huey fades as we venture back to 1955, where Alan Silvestri’s majestic score sings. Aside from the obvious time stamps–synth pop vs. classical–there’s also a tonal differentiation. Where Huey’s tunes suit lazy Sundays, Silvestri’s urgent horns scream for action, a distinction that helps mirror Marty’s mindset and uniquely contribute to the storytelling. Also, did you know Huey plays a judge in the talent sh–of course you do, everybody knows that.

Analysis: BTTF is timeless because, in many ways, it’s about time. That it bursts with such specific ‘80s-era fashion and culture only contributes to the film’s overall effect, as much of the story is dependent on the intensity of Marty’s displacement in the ‘50s, not to mention the appreciation one develops for their home once they’ve been absent from its little joys and familiarities for so long. It’s in moments like these that we come to realize how little we know about those people and artifacts with which we’re surrounded, and I imagine this was a realization Bob Gale came upon when he stumbled upon that photo of his teenage father.

The idea of being able to witness the courtship that eventually brought you into the world is a deeply moving one. The idea of actively having to save that courtship is something else entirely, a journey that any child of divorce would likely find tender and cathartic. How hard is it for so many to break through the walls of family and become honest-to-god friends with our parents? How hard is it to admit you wish they looked at each other the way they did when you were young? Despite Marty being rewarded with a new car and doting girlfriend in the end, it’s an appreciation for family that is ultimately his greatest reward.

–Randall Colburn