In general I prefer not to watch films in 3D. It is almost never an improvement and the glasses can be a distraction, especially for someone like me who already wear glasses. But The Walk was an exception. Here the 3D was more fulfilling than I have ever experienced before, almost the raison d’être for the film. In every scene the space has been designed and shot to take advantage of the possibilities of 3D, making everything integrated, every brick, every tea spoon, every leaf. It was not just for special moments but as a constant presence. However this might also be why the film often felt like it was animated. It was perhaps the first film I have seen were I experienced the uncanny valley, even though that is only to be experienced when digital creations feel too real. Here it was real people who sometimes felt like digital creations. It was not necessarily a bad thing, only peculiar. Also, as it happens, it was the first time when the 3D effects actually made me move my body so as not to be hit by hurling objects. Yet it did not feel like a cheap gimmick either, but essential to the film. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón 2013) is often singled out for its 3D, like the single tear floating in the space craft, but I felt it much more strongly here, in The Walk. Not something attached to it at the end to enhance the sale of tickets but as an original ambition to enhance the artistry of the film. And not just of the film but of its subject matter and of its main character, the high wire walker Philippe Petit.
The walk of the title is Petit’s walk between the twin towers of the now demolished World Trade Center (which can be seen being built in the background in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971)). Petit’s performance had been on obsession for him for six years, from the first time he read about the towers being built to his actual walk, on August 7, 1974, and the walk itself took 45 minutes. Or rather, the event took 45 minutes because it was not just a walk; he walked back and forth several times and even paused on the middle of the rope and performed there. Then it started to rain and he returned to the roof of one of the towers.
This obsession of Petit is what made this event happen, but it makes him uncompromising and occasionally unpleasant. He is always pushing himself and the people around him and since what he is doing is highly dangerous and illegal it might be worth considering whether he should be condemned or celebrated. Some consider his acts, and those of others who do similar things, to be narcissistic acts of public masturbation, but I prefer a world in which there are people like Petit; people who do outrageous things, be they scientists, artists or performers, and by their imagination and their acts enhance our sense of ourselves and our understanding of our capacities and the possibilities that exists above and beyond our everyday lives. Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote and directed The Walk, seems to feel the same way, and is himself also a visionary. He does not make ordinary films about ordinary lives, he make films about the extraordinary. He is also constantly pushing the medium, not least technologically, to bring it forward and make it do things not seen before. Unfortunately he is not an altogether great director; too many of his films have noticeable weaknesses, whether it be the dialogue, the acting, unfocused scripts or a foregrounding of techniques in a way that gets in the way because the technique is not yet good enough for such a prominent place. Yet I still appreciate and admire Zemeckis because of his imagination and visionary mind-set. And I do really like Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Cast Away (2000).
So it is not a surprise that Zemeckis would want to do a film about Philippe Petit, nor that the film is such a bold undertaking. While the characters are at times annoying, as is the sometimes strained efforts to breeziness, the film moves swiftly along towards the last part, i.e. the actual event, which is when the film really comes alive. The enactment seems to take as long as the actual event and it is a breathtakingly unsettling, beautiful and moving spectacle. The look, the sound, the nervous tics of the characters, the editing, the light, the texture of the material, it all blends together to an astonishing achievement.
Petit’s walk has been said to have change the New Yorkers perception of the twin towers, from ugly monsters to something worth cherishing and be proud of. Now that they are gone the film emphasis this loss in subtle ways, trying to bring back the first sensation of them and the feelings they once aroused. In a way they too embody the same kind of ambition, passion and obsession that Petit’s walk does. An effort to reach higher, to go further, to reach beyond the ordinary. It that way it would seem to be a perfect match: Petit, the towers and Zemeckis.