Movie Review: “The Walk” (Robert Zemeckis, USA 2015)

A Frenchman stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the twin towers of the World Trade Center behind him, and says, “Forever.” It’s all rather obvious CGI and doesn’t look very good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is trying his best to keep us interested and the background has just enough movement that it looks “alive,” though it’s also so obviously CGI that the idea of its reality is laughable.

Everything you need to know about The Walk is in that image. It’s a political allegory about immigration that could easily bear the subtitle “why Donald Trump is wrong.” It’s obvious to the point of being a bit forced and there are ways in which it seems to be on the right track, but its execution is quite simply lacking, leaving behind a film that isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing.

In 1974, Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, secretly placed a high wire between the recently-opened twin towers of the World Trade Center and proceeded to perform on the wire, without permission, for 45 minutes. Thirty-four years later, a documentary about the act, Man on a Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA 2008), sparked renewed interest in the stunt, and I will be honest that I had no interest in it then or now. I was willing to go because of Gordon-Levitt, whose taste in projects has been as reliable as any director outside of Rian Johnson in the last decade, but I really didn’t know what Zemeckis could be doing other than telling a story that for some reason that eludes me holds interest to many people.

But Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne did something smart that most people would not think to do: they used the story as a vehicle to tell us something that the story itself isn’t about. They made an allegory. Fundamentally, this is a film about immigration. This is a film that says that immigration leads to a melding of cultures that makes everyone better and brings them together.

The shot of a Frenchman standing on the statue that the French gave to the United States to welcome immigrants in front of not just any tall buildings, but the Twin Towers, is a clear enough point on its own, but the film doesn’t stop there. Before Petit’s walk, we hear that the towers are hated throughout the city and we get the idea that the city itself is fractured. After, we are told directly that the city has come to accept the towers as a result of his walk. When we see Petit working in France, the score is French-language versions of American music of the time, referencing a kind of cultural emigration that the United States has engaged in without any concern throughout much of its history. There is constant discussion of language and how people who speak both languages are present in both countries.

The problem is that the film doesn’t do anything visual to advance its point. It’s full of awful CGI and those silly “oh no it’s coming at us!” 3D shots and matte paintings. There’s so little that’s real in the film that it’s easy to think that Zemeckis and Dariusz Wolski made an animated film more than a live-action work. It all looks very, very blue (though the colors are brighter in some scenes in France, particularly when Petit is discovering the wire that he so loves) and cold. And none of that adds anything to the point.

There is one other problem, though it’s hardly an objective one: I was bored through most of the film. I really wanted it to end about 40 minutes before it did. Your mileage may vary on that point, but I really did find it boring.

Gordon-Levitt’s accent had a few bad moments but otherwise he was just as excellent as he usually is. He didn’t have much to show–really just a mixture of exuberance and arrogance–but he did everything Zemeckis asked of him as well as anyone could. Charlotte Le Bon had to do a bit more, and had to do it subtly, and she was also capable. Ben Kingsley returns to his general role of grumpy old artist dude and is generally fine, though sometimes his grouchiness felt so fake that when he reveals himself to be a more caring person than he has otherwise admitted it falls a bit flat. (It’s also predictable from scripting, but Kingsley could have made it work better.)

The Walk was surprising in that I didn’t expect a political allegory out of its story. It was surprising in that Robert Zemeckis’s checkered career has not included things with even attempted depth, let alone having some success at it. It was surprising in that Zemeckis, long one of the more technologically-adept directors in Hollywood, made something that looked so silly and cartoonish. However, I’m not sure it was any more successful than I would have guessed. It was rather dull and it didn’t look good, leaving Gordon-Levitt trying to carry a film that wants to be deeper than it is. It wasn’t a waste of time, but it just didn’t reach the heights Zemeckis seemed to have planned.

Notes

  • Without looking, name a Zemeckis film since Forrest Gump (USA 1994). Harder to do than you would think, isn’t it? This is the ninth film he’s made since then and really only Cast Away (USA 2000) made any kind of ripple in the public consciousness, and even that ripple was focused on Tom Hanks.
  • I don’t care enough to look up the reality of it, but why didn’t he even bother to ask for permission to do the high wire act? It’s possible that they would have seen it as a good promotion for the WTC.
  • They put up signs that say not to mess with his concentration or touch the wire, but the helicopter flying overhead doesn’t affect Petit at all? That seems ridiculous. Maybe if I watched the documentary I would find out that a helicopter really did fly overhead, but that seems like it would almost definitely kill him.
  • I’m also incredulous about Petit needing to tell the police to release the tension instead of just cutting the wire that’s inches away from them. Maybe they’re not used to seeing something like that, but it seems intuitive to me that you wouldn’t want just to cut it.
  • Petit comes across as a total dick. I was rooting for Annie to leave him before they even came to the US.
  • I’m just curious why Zemeckis made this decision: time passes behind Petit while he’s describing what happened from the Statue of Liberty. It just seemed odd enough that I kept wondering why he did that.
  • It was kind of interesting that the film is structured like a heist movie. And yet, where heist movies are so often fun, this one just felt so long.
  • No, I did not watch it in 3D. I still hate 3D.

Movie Review: “Looper” (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012)

    Since 2005, there have been three films that, to me, are always linked as extraordinary debuts from young American directors to watch in the future: Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA 2005), (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009), and, best of all, Brick (Rian Johnson, USA 2005). These were all fantastic films that showed remarkable cohesiveness and visual imagination and were so inventive that the directors all seemed obviously destined for great futures. (Interesting aside: Webb and Johnson both made their debuts starring the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt.)

Reitman followed his debut up with the incredibly commercially successful but artistically lackluster Juno (USA 2007), the acclaimed Up in the Air (USA 2009), and finally the complete failure Young Adult (USA 2011). I have been pretty disappointed in Reitman, but he has been able to find some success. Webb, who is a bit of a different case from the other two because he was a seasoned music video director when his debut appeared and he did not write his own screenplay, followed up by helming the big-budget failure The Amazing Spider-Man (USA 2012), which looked like a music video director instead of a promising filmmaker made it. Obviously, I’m disappointed in Webb.

Rian Johnson, meanwhile, followed up his debut with the excellent The Brothers Bloom (USA 2008) and made a brief foray into television by directing one of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, “Fly,” finally returning with his third feature film here. Johnson is the only one of those promising directors who seems to be delivering on that promise, and he hasn’t stopped delivering with his latest.

Looper is a “science fiction” thriller set in a noirish near-future that would make Philip K. Dick jealous. The film’s premise is that criminal organizations in the film’s future (ca. 2074) hire people in the film’s present (2044), the title loopers, to dispose of bodies that they send back in time, it being far easier to dispose of someone in 2044 than 2074, but there is a catch to the job: eventually, the person they send back for you will be your future self, so that you can’t talk. Joe is one such Looper, and when his future self comes back, of course problems arise.

This is the rare well-thought-out futuristic film. It’s a testament to the amount of work and care put into the time-traveling logic that one of the biggest logical gaps in the film is really how on earth someone as good looking as Joseph Gordon-Levitt ages into Bruce Willis. There is also a bit of a hole in the question of why the criminals send someone back alive instead of killing them and sending back the body, but it’s not a big enough hole to take away from the film.

The twisting, turning narrative is told with brilliant economy and just enough confusing jump-cutting by Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay to keep the audience on its feet, as befits a time-traveling thriller. Johnson has a ton of story to fit into a film’s time frame, so he gives the audience a ton of information in a few excellent montage sequences, a brilliant way of allowing the film’s primary story to remain in front and yet get all of the information needed to the audience. Future Joe’s entire life story is summed up in just a few minutes of screen time and yet feels fully told, informing us of everything we need for the final act. Few directors would even attempt such a maneuver for fear of losing the audience, but Johnson not only uses it there but uses it a number of times, trusting his audience to follow along and adding to the twisting time-traveling narrative. Ducsay also proves up to the task of creating these montages, a true editing feat.

Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin enhance everything by shooting the entire film with a cold, very dark, very noir style. They eschew special effects and CGI almost completely, avoiding the trap that felled Webb’s big-budget debut. Instead, They shoots the entire film in a foreboding darkness with strategic high-contrast lighting, utilizing a cool color palate that doesn’t include any of the oranges of most modern filmmaking. It’s not dissimilar from what the pair did with Brick, and in both cases it suits the story perfectly. Johnson’s mastery of the visual and his incredible sense of rhythm keep this film on the rails completely, even as a bizarre narrative threatens to throw it off course.

The other thing that does the most to anchor this film is of course Gordon-Levitt. The star is absolutely brilliant, as usual, in a role that requires great subtlety to play correctly–watch his face carefully in his scene after he hides Seth: Joe wants to be Sam Spade, but he doesn’t quite have that level of confidence, then he goes into Abe’s office with a sarcastic grin that Humphrey Bogart would be proud of. Bruce Willis plays the older version of Joe, which is a much simpler role, and plays it pretty well. Some of his more emotive scenes are a bit forced, but they’re not terrible, and he is surprisingly believable back in his usual badass role after the last time that I saw him he was playing a broken down old detective in Sin City (Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller, USA 2005). No one else really has much of a role to play, so no one really stands out in any way.

A note should be given to Nathan Johnson’s score, which is every bit as excellent as his work on Brick. Nathan Johnson, Rian’s brother, has an excellent light touch with his scores, not trying to manipulate the audience too much but just enhancing what his brother is already doing on screen–he could teach a lesson to a great many film composers.

All told, this was excellent work with almost no flaws. It bears a startling stylistic and thematic similarity to the last good “science fiction” film made, Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2006), and is similarly a bit by-the-numbers dystopian, but there is enough here that’s unique and even what is not unique is so well done that it really does not matter. Rian Johnson hasn’t missed yet, and it’s about time that we just start calling him the best director working today.

A Minor Related Note That Will Surely Be Too Long

I’m putting science fiction in quotes because I think everyone knows what the popular definition of the phrase is, but it’s really inaccurate as to what science fiction is supposed to be. Science fiction is supposed to be based on real or theoretically possible technology and that technology is the basis of the story. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968) and Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968) are science fiction. This definition is why Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton both often chafed at being called science fiction writers, with Bradbury often explaining that he considered his work, rightly, to be fantasy with the exception of The Martian Chronicles.

Most modern “science fiction,” particularly in films, is not strictly science fiction: Alien (Ridley Scott, USA/UK 1979) and Pitch Black (David Twohy, USA 2000) are horror films, Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, USA 1990) and Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2010) are psychological thrillers, and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK 1982) and Brazil (Terry Gilliam, UK 1985) are paranoid thrillers. This film is actually neo-noir, much more akin to Brick and Chinatown (Roman Polanksi, USA 1974) than to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I prefer to stick to using the more precise definition when possible, because the popular definition is so broad as to cover a wide range of films that share very little. Consider that Alien and Sleeper (Woody Allen, USA 1973) both fit into the popular definition of science fiction and how far apart those two films really are. It makes far more sense to me to categorize the former alongside films like Jaws (Steven Speilberg, USA 1975) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980) and the latter alongside films like Thank You for Smoking and Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, USA 1972). However, as far as usage goes, this is a long-over war, and the more precise definition has lost out.