When I first saw the DeLorean rush toward me at the end of Back to the Future, I was 11 years old, and I felt alive in a way that I’m not sure I had experienced before. The endings of the films of Robert Zemeckis would continue to give me that rush of good feeling—Tom Hanks at the crossroads in Cast Away, and on the tree stump waiting for his little son to come home from school in Forrest Gump; Denzel Washington faced with the question “Who are you?” in Flight. Some critics, believing that things need to be difficult in order for them to be good, find it easy to turn down a Zemeckis invitation. I beg to differ—there’s no contradiction in loving the populist sentiment of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the serious melodrama of The Elephant Man, the painful and nonlinear narrative of Exotica, the surreal plunge into the human shadow of Enter the Void, and the high art intellectual sensibilities of Eternity and a Day. And those are just a handful of very different films beginning with the letter “E.” Authenticity is what matters, not how “elite” the work can appear to be.
Zemeckis makes large-scale populist entertainment that makes us laugh and cry, but he deals in authenticity. Along with the fun and the flights (Forrest running across the U.S., Marty McFly and Doc Brown’s race to connect the wires with the clock tower, and two of the most harrowing plane crashes in the movies), emotional beats are earned, characters behave as they might in real life (even if they are in a time-traveling sports car or abandoned on an island), and audiences get the chance to wrestle with the same question faced by Denzel: Who am I?