It is always interesting to explore the career trajectories of Hollywood’s A-list directors. Some elect to coast along, following a set formula and taking few risks (i.e. Alexander Payne). Others play the field, jumping genres and refusing to adhere to a specific style (i.e. James Mangold). The career of director Robert Zemeckis is something else entirely, playing like a novel with distinct chapters, some far more successful than others. After a decade’s long break from live-action filmmaking, Zemeckis returns next month with the highly anticipated Flight, a character-driven drama starring Denzel Washington. With that, let’s take a look back at his fascinating career.

The first chapter of Robert Zemeckis’s career is probably the most interesting as he began to shape his filmmaking philosophy. At the time, his guide was Steven Spielberg, who had taken Zemeckis, along with friend Bob Gale, under his wing after they graduated from the University of Southern California. Zemeckis and Gale wanted to steer clear of the New Wave movement that engulfed Hollywood in the 70s, opting to focus on more commercial and crowd-pleasing fare, like Spielberg had done with Jaws. It wasn’t about making some profound statement or garnering widespread critical acclaim. It was about entertaining. Period. Cut and dry. Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg adopted an “anything goes” mentality, jumping from light, breezy teen comedies (I Wanna Hold Your Hand), to zany, overblown disaster flicks (1941), to harsh, crude satires (Used Cars). Never before, or since, has Zemeckis been that out of control as an artist, and his exuberance was infectious.

After playing director for hire on the Michael Douglas hit adventure comedy Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis was given some wiggle room to tackle a project of his own. The result was Back to the Future, a classic sci-fi fantasy about a rebellious teenager (Michael J. Fox) who inadvertently traveled back to 1955, seriously jeopardizing future events. While Back to the Future masterfully blends elements of science fiction, comedy, and light drama, the most important element of all was Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale’s focus on character. Nothing displays this better than the casting of lead actor Michael J Fox, who exudes a warmth and likability completely absent from other young actors of the Brat Pack era. For Zemeckis, Back to the Future was a professional and personal triumph, elevating his name to the A-list and defining who he was as an artist. This was the kind of film he was born to make. Armed with a newfound confidence, Zemeckis spent the next seven years producing some of his best work, including two Back to the Future sequels and the groundbreaking live-action/animated comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

After spending a career directing films for no one but himself and the audience, Robert Zemeckis took a page from Steven Spielberg’s playbook and set out to become a “serious filmmaker.” If anything, it was certainly a risk as Spielberg’s first attempt at doing this resulted in some of the most obvious and heavy-handed work of his career with The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Always. Fortunately, Zemeckis managed to avoid many of those pitfalls by choosing projects that, while certainly more dramatic, never strayed too far outside his comfort zone. For example, with Forrest Gump, Zemeckis tackled a sprawling epic about a dim-witted man’s (Tom Hanks) incredible journey through life. Despite dealing with heavy themes including loss, abandonment, and addiction, Forrest Gump had a wonderful undercurrent of humor that ran throughout. After years of honing his comedic skills, Zemeckis knew exactly when and how to sell those moments without disrupting the overall tone. Was the film melodramatic and manipulative at times? Sure. However, even the most hardened of hearts will find something to like in Gump’s uplifting and supremely entertaining life story. A winner of 6 Academy Awards, Forrest Gump was a brilliant transitional film for Zemeckis, allowing him to branch out into straight dramas like Contact and Cast Away down the road.

By 2000, Robert Zemeckis had firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors, showing a sure hand with various genres including science fiction, comedy, drama, and horror. Just when it looked as though he could do no wrong, his career took a rather perplexing turn with his adaptation of The Polar Express. Zemeckis elected to shoot the film using motion capture technology. The results were very mixed. While his compositions were grand and, at times, beautiful, that human element, so prevalent in other Zemeckis efforts, was completely absent. For the first time, Zemeckis crafted his story around the images rather than his images around the story. It is because of this that The Polar Express felt like his most impersonal project and many critics took note of that. However, Zemeckis was undeterred as his next two features, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, both utilized motion capture technology to similar effect.

In June of 2011, it was announced that Robert Zemeckis would be helming Flight, his first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away. Zemeckis definitely appears to be  turning a page with Flight as it is a smaller character piece, completely absent of all the gaudy excesses of his last three motion capture features. It will also be his first R-rated film since 1980’s Used Cars. Is this the beginning of a darker, more mature chapter in the novel of Robert Zemeckis’s career? We will just have to see.