Robert Zemeckis is the King of Nostalgic Cinema

By  · Published on October 6th, 2015

Universal Pictures

With his latest movie, The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis is back to his old time-travel tricks. I never really felt like I was on top of the World Trade Center during the reconstruction of Philip Petit’s tightrope act between the Twin Towers, but other times the movie made me feel like I was back in pre-9/11 New York, when the towers still rose above the city. Or that Zemeckis had somehow transported the buildings to the present in order to have the actors work opposite the real thing. The World Trade Center in The Walk is like John F. Kennedy in Forrest Gump and The Beatles in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, not just part of a reenactment of history but an overlapping of past and present.

At a time when nostalgia seems to be ruining pop culture, when our childhoods are being “raped” by the resurrection or remaking of everything from our youth, Zemeckis’s way of romancing the old really stands out. He manages to bring back the past intact, or seem to anyway, not just offer a facsimile or reproduction. The Walk isn’t quite as successful as the documentary version of Petit’s story, Man on Wire, as far as making us yearn for the more innocent times before the terrorists attacked those Twin Towers, but coming from the co-writer and director of Back to the Future, it’s hard not to see a parallel between Zemeckis’s nostalgia for the 1950s and his sentimental tribute, via Petit, to the 30-plus years the towers existed.

Universal Pictures


Zemeckis’s interest in nostalgia surely shows its head most famously in Back to the Future, but seeing that first movie in the trilogy simply for its Baby Boomer-pleasing affection for the ’50s is a very easy and quite boring place to look in the context of the rest of his career, but also especially in the context of the rest of the Back to the Future series and within the original installment itself. It plays with and pays homage to the 1980s as much as the 1950s, including jokes that make the movie seem nostalgic for the later decade during the time that it’s set in the earlier. But it’s in Back to the Future Part II that he really shows his ability to be nostalgic for the present or very recent past, from the imaginative perspective of 30 years ahead.

The Back to the Future sequel is phenomenal in the way it treats 1980s nostalgia in 2015 like 1950s nostalgia was (not just in Back to the Future) in the 1980s, most obviously in the retro cafe and antique shop scenes but also in the way some things from the past are repurposed as new things for the future (Jaws 19, hovering skateboards). Even more amazing is the way it led us in 2015 to be nostalgic for a fictional 2015 of 26 years ago, to the point that we’re trying to make this year as close to the way it was shown then. And then there’s Back to the Future Part III, which takes a step back in order to spotlight the nostalgia for a romanticized Old West that was so popular in the 1950s, and while there we even get a nod to nostalgia for a future’s past in Doc Brown’s memory of reading Jules Verne sci-fi as a boy.

Paramount Pictures


Of course, to Clara in Back to the Future Part III, Verne is brand new. And that’s one of the ways Zemeckis shows us that everything is old and new, now and then, everything happening at once, the same or similar or repeated. The whole trilogy is pretty much set in the same place, at different points in time but within the same space, and there’s a ton of repeated motifs that make Hill Valley like a temporal mashup. It’s time travel for the remix culture, constantly recalling the familiar in order to do something slightly new with it. And that’s not just the case for those movies. Zemeckis has often done with cinema and culture what hip-hop made popular in music, he sampled it. He does it with archival footage in Gump, with cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

He reinvents and revises without ever ruining. He can take a fictional character and literally run him through nearly 40 years of history, putting his fingerprints on all kinds of cultural milestones without dirtying them up. He did the same with his ultimate mashup, Roger Rabbit, crossing over characters from different worlds, franchises and (in the sense of toons living among humans) dimensions. And he shows respect to all those animated icons he samples in a manner that is born out of and caters to the nostalgic, not out to exploit nostalgia as a source of regurgitation or remodeling, which is what so many do with it today. The Walk is less of a collage than his better, earlier nostalgic works, but it is stuck in being based on a true story (Zemeckis’s first focused on historical events rather than using them as a backdrop), and yet even while restricted to the 1970s, it’s a spectral mash, filled with ghosts of years yet to come.

Touchstone Pictures


At the end of The Walk (this isn’t a spoiler, don’t worry), Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says that his pass to the top of the World Trade Center has no expiration date, that it’s marked as good “forever.” That’s a bittersweet line given what has happened to the towers, but it’s about how Petit will always have the memory of those buildings and will always be be able to go there in his mind and be nostalgic about his passionate feat between them. Zemeckis’s nostalgic cinema is also all about going back to what was, not bringing back what once was. Yes, he meticulously recreates time periods constantly for his movies and now has, with CG, remade the World Trader Center in a photorealist way that looks but isn’t the real thing, but all of these movies are still about the original rather than the reproduction (this is, of course, more of Zemeckis contradicting his own points in his methods).

With the Back to the Future movies we get to pretend we can literally revisit the past, not just go to a silly cafe made to seem like it’s out of the past, but which doesn’t quite get it right, or wear “cowboy” clothes that bear no real resemblance to what people wore in the Old West. I Wanna Hold Your Hand celebrates the memory of the real Beatles and Beatlemania at a time when impersonators and the “Beatlemania” Broadway show was rising in popularity. Gump employs real historical figures instead of actors portraying them and Roger Rabbit uses cartoon characters in a way that’s as if they’re archival and not done anew, implicitly addressing the way those characters’ old films can be watched decades later by new audiences or nostalgic old ones as if they’re literally timeless. The towers in The Walk are, I suppose, therefore actually more like Mickey Mouse in Roger Rabbit than Kennedy in Gump, but the result is supposed to be the same for all.

Zemeckis can still be a total hypocrite in ways that tarnish his crown as the king of nostalgic cinema. His stated protection over the Back to the Future franchise from it being remade or spawning more sequels has already been slightly negated by the announcement of a new in-canon short film starring Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. And even if The Walk isn’t a remake, just another adaptation of the same book Man on Wire is based on, he has produced true rehashes (House on Haunted Hill and Thir13een Ghosts), which go against his apparent dislike of remakes of his own work and his typical thematic faithfulness to at least the idea of the actual, antique originals of things. Or maybe I’m just being too nostalgic for what seemed to be Zemeckis’s thing 20–30 years ago and this whole consideration of his work is the critical equivalent of Cafe 80s?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.