Whilst his most successful films are also some of the most successful of all time, in terms of both the box office and the critics’ choices, Robert Zemeckis certainly receives a fair amount of backlash for his work, especially within circles of film fans both online and in person. Whether it be for the hundred and forty two minute yikes that is Forrest Gump, a film that parades a bizarre hellscape fantasy version of America around as if it were real (certainly deserved criticism on Gump – it really is quite a misfire in my eyes, I can’t get along with it at all. Even ignoring the offensive side to it, it’s just a formal bore and Hanks is uniquely terrible in it.) or the frequent merging of CGI (especially the photo-realistic style that he was crucial in bringing to the mainstream) with live-action (first seen, I believe, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit which mixed Looney Tunes with live-action film noir, and is honestly a surprisingly well held together film with good points made throughout regarding capitalism and fascism… yeah… it’s admittedly a little weird to say the least.), Zemeckis’ career has been consistently shot down with criticism, and it’s often at least somewhat deserved. I mean… look at the reception to the recent Welcome to Marwen – again, it looks deserved, but to see the directed of such well known and esteemed classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future fall from grace to such a degree is frankly quite surprising, especially seeing as his focuses really haven’t changed all too much over time.
Anyway, this is where Allied comes in. Zemeckis started the 21st century as mixed as ever, beginning with a thriller (What Lies Beneath), then an adventure/drama (Cast Away – I quite like the first half of this one actually!) before delving into a trilogy of animated features (two of which revolve around Christmas) and then finally getting more serious, leading to a trilogy of more serious films targeted towards an older audience, beginning with Flight, then seeing The Walk release in 2015 (again, this one has its moments, especially the big finale that the entire film works towards – the mixing of CGI and live-action here is very clean and sets up what would come to life perfectly in Allied a year later) and finally we arrive to Allied, which is without a doubt the slightly bizarre and totally unexpected opus from a director assumed way past their prime.
On the surface, Allied looks just like another callback to World War II, hell, it even looks like one that fetishises the drama of wartime and makes it look like some suave adventure full of fun and danger and quirky thrills, but to my surprise (I bought a copy, spent months putting it off, almost sold it and for some reason gave it a chance one night only to have it blow my mind) it’s the total opposite, a film that, at first, makes a spectacle out of the espionage and the danger that comes with pretending to be someone that you’re not with the risk of being discovered and captured feeling more real than you can really imagine thanks to Zemeckis’ excellent blocking and consistently careful consideration of his always impressive visuals before switching code entirely and falling into a unique war-induced hell.
Brad Pitt gives one of his most restricted performances, loosening his usual charismatic style and swapping it for something much more subdued to serve the 40s style as much as possible, whilst his co-star Marion Cotillard gives one of her best performances as this always slightly untrustworthy and suspicious chameleon who remains largely in the shadows. Don Burgess does an incredible job with the cinematography too, especially in the second half with the more melodramatic scenes for which he employs the traditional styles of melodrama greats like Douglas Sirk with the consistent use of mirror shots to help to further cement the 40s style that the film is constantly gunning for. The rising of the stakes seems so effortless and the script flows impossibly from start to finish, and yet the drama is always growing in a way that should pose a real challenge for the audience to keep up with. Zemeckis’ usual fun with CGI mixed in with live-action is also present, but for the most part it’s used sparingly enough (and well enough) to mix in unnoticeably and create some excellent moments of visual storytelling, particularly one involving a plane (we’ll ignore the somewhat silly sandstorm moment as fun as that is).
The most impressive thing about the film overall is undoubtedly the way that Zemeckis adapts the cinema of the Golden Age of Hollywood (the film is a mix of Bogart style noir and 40s/50s espionage thriller – a little like Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German but far more thrilling, if the comparison helps to articulate the ideas) to the very modern style he usually employs in his other work. It’s definitely not wrong to say that this is really the culmination of Zemeckis’ work overall, all the way from Back To The Future’s look at linking through time to the playing with CGI and the return to more adult content that started in the 2010s with Flight. With such a focus on performance (acting as an actor, looking at posing, etc etc.) and blocking, Zemeckis really brings his formal strengths to the forefront for once rather than experimenting and just makes an incredible film totally on its own merit. For a noir throwback thriller to follow the cliches is expected, but to see it instead use the digital filmmaking as the method of subversion is a real breath of fresh air. The CGI becomes a revolutionary stance, the extreme colours become a middle finger and the shiny clothes (yes, really) become a way to solidify cinema’s future as both a place for digital mainstream filmmaking and digital experimentation. It’s still surprising to me that horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa called this the best film of the 2010s (on a list I can no longer find – I originally saw it on Twitter but haven’t been able to find it since…), but to say that Allied isn’t impressive, especially given the bizarre context of Zemeckis’ career, is to lie.