THE WALK * * 1 / 2
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine and Ben Kingsley. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
I’m absolutely fucking terrified of heights. Weirdly, this is a phobia that can’t recall suffering from as a child and I’m not quite sure when it began, but it’s only growing more intense as I get older. Just seeing a trailer for The Walk made my stomach perform a couple of acrobatic flips, and of course I heard the reports of vertigo-stricken audience members at the New York Film Festival fleeing the auditorium to go vomit. This is why I approached the film not as an entertainment but as a personal dare: The Walk was something I was gonna conquer, goddammit.
I deliberately sought out the largest IMAX screen around. None of that rinky-dink AMC Liemax –the most egregious price-gouging scam in exhibition these days – and instead headed to the full-sized seventy- foot monster with the 4K Laser projection and ten-channel surround sound at Jordan’s Furniture in Reading, MA. (Yep, the most technologically advanced place to see a movie in the Boston area is inside a furniture store.) This was the theatre where the Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission Impossible 4 gave me a panic attack a few years ago. Time for a rematch.
If it sounds like I’m describing The Walk more as a theme park attraction than a movie, it’s because that’s pretty much what it is. The story of Phillipe Petit — who in August of 1974 broke into the World Trade Center and performed a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers — was already told quite brilliantly in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, Man on Wire.
The Walk is director Robert Zemeckis’ massively scaled, kid-friendly, CGI 3D rendering of Petit’s insane feat. Though technically not one of those creepy-looking motion-capture animated movies Zemeckis pioneered in the 2000’s, it looks and feels more like a cartoon than anything he’s made since Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Everything in the film is shinier and larger than life. Especially the Towers.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed seeing them again. If you recall, right after 9/11 Hollywood was airbrushing them out of everything, save for a couple of pointedly gasp-inducing glimpses in the closing shots of Munich and Gangs of New York. I worked at a movie theatre that showed Man on Wire back in 2008, and judging from conversations with my customers, seven years seemed to be the right amount of time for folks to get comfortable looking the World Trade Center in a movie again.
Now seven years after that, Zemeckis has painstakingly digitally recreated the Twin Towers and all but caresses the monolithic structures with his virtual camera, inviting us to drink in the sight. The Walk is almost worth watching just to sit there and savor the restored New York City skyline.
Zemeckis doesn’t leave you much time for that, though. The film is narrated by a hyperactive Joseph Gordon-Levitt, bouncing about while directly addressing the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Gordon-Levitt looks nothing like the real Petit (who rather resembles Tilda Swinton) and the actor seems to have based his performance on a certain amorous skunk you probably recall from Looney Tunes cartoons. He’s unbearably obnoxious, yet in keeping with Zemeckis’ over-the-top children’s storybook vision of a Paris where mimes ride unicycles while chomping on baguettes and a Noo Yawk where everybody’s accents are even broader than their gargantuan moustaches.
You spend most of the running time impatiently waiting for Petit to get on the damn wire, and then once he finally walks out there you wish that holy shit please dude for the love of gawd get off that fucking thing already. A single sequence can’t make a lousy movie great, but the one in The Walk comes awfully close.
Robert Zemeckis has been using 3D for at least twice as long as any other contemporary filmmaker and he’s probably forgotten more about the format than most will ever learn. There’s no way to overpraise his use of depth here to make the viewer feel a hundred stories high, shooting from physically impossible angles at an impeccably detailed digital paintbox lower Manhattan that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a clammy, visceral and altogether stupendous technical achievement. You already know Petit’s gonna make it. The suspense is whether or not you will, too.
I survived, albeit after watching the sequence with my heart in my throat and leaving those comfy Jordan’s Tempurpedic armrests soaked with palm-sweat. (Apologies to whoever had to sit in my seat during the next show.) The reason, I think, that even someone as skittish as yours truly could get through such a sequence is because of a fundamental flaw that’s dogged Zemeckis’ storytelling for his entire career: The guy can’t leave anything alone.
When I say Gordon-Levitt narrates the movie, I mean he narrates the entire movie. Most of the time he’s just describing shit that’s clearly visible onscreen: “Zen I got in zee elevator and pushed zee button to go up.” It’s like one of those descriptive-listening tracks for the blind, read by Pepe Le Pew.
Zemeckis’ usual composer Alan Silvestri is on hand to once again cloyingly underline just how goddamn magical and amazing everything is, reminding us all how great it was when Cast Away didn’t allow any score on the island, and how deeply dispiriting it was when the music kicked in again after Hanks escaped.
The Walk even periodically cuts away from the actual walk – back to Gordon-Levitt mincing about the Statue of Liberty, explaining to us what we were just watching. The imagery is so stunning, the technique so astounding, this could have been a transporting experience if he’d just shut the fuck up for like five seconds and let us watch it.
But then again, these gaffes also serve as tension-release valves, taking you out of the action for a moment and you can collect yourself. Ironically enough, if The Walk had been a better movie I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through it.