Robert Zemeckis is an arrogant, pompous twit.
This isn’t a new fact. It is astonishingly apparent in most of his previous work. Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express, Flight. There is hardly a movie in his resume that isn’t oozing with this grandiose, spurious arrogance that makes you want to wring your own neck and exit what hellish experience you are apart of.
This doesn’t change in The Walk, a blissfully self-important and entitled look at the magnificent feat by Phillipe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who walked back and forth on a wire across the World Trade Center buildings. As he’s done in the past, in almost a way of shaming the audience for their intelligence, Zemeckis elects to use narration to move the story along and remind you when to feel, be scared, or get angry.
In order to top his past, he also elects to use Gordon-Levitt on top of the Statue of Liberty as his mode for narration, which instead incited my anger and made me ask for Petit to fall off the structure — something I would completely squander in the final 30 minutes.
Zemeckis has become a spectacle filmmaker in his later years, preferring his films to have a gimmick in order to drive audiences to seats rather than working to develop any semblance of emotion or a plot to go alongside the ground-breaking CGI or motion-capture work. Starting in 2004 with The Polar Express and moving swiftly to the present year, there has always been a hot-ticket bribe that thrusts the audience into the theater to see his latest work.
For The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol it was the motion-capture technology; for Flight, it was the incredible CGI-realness of the plane descending into most certain death. Like the latter, Zemeckis uses the final 30-minutes of The Walk as a spectacle. Captivating the audience with the almost surely dangerous work by Gordon-Levitt and the audaciously arousing images that create a vertigo effect unlike anything seen before.
While it is easy to discount Zemeckis for so much, it isn’t right to say he did poorly there. The last 30 minutes of The Walk are some of the most bewitching moments of cinema you’ll see this year or any previous. Instead of creating a false tension to keep us on our toes, Zemeckis realizes the true gift that he was given and uses it to its full advantage. We don’t need a cracked mechanism or a freak accident to make us fear for the life of Petit, the tension and anxiety is in the act — and Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt pull it off masterfully.
It is truly perfect making the last 30 minutes this suspended disbelief with the air of the scene casting you into the ending of the film and you are out of the theater forgetting that the previous hour and a half actually happened. The vomit-inducing narration, the plot points that try shaking the emotion out of you as if you just got out of the rain, and the flat lifeless characters that hope to be pushed from point to point with the aid of the ever present pop culture pulse that Zemeckis truly feels he understands.
It isn’t a lack of understanding with pop culture that hinders Zemeckis, it is a bland miscalculation of how to use it. Zemeckis views it as a propelling vehicle, something to accelerate the movement and mood of the film forward without doing actual work. It’s funny that so much of his early work is tied into Steven Spielberg because Zemeckis is truly the bizarro version of the famed director, misplacing sentimentality for indifference and perpetuating a coldness throughout the course of the story.
The plot of The Walk moves like a zombie across a bog with two balls-and-chains attached to his feet. The first act works as an unnecessary introduction into what made Philippe Petit the high-wire genius he is. Instead, it side-tracks us and leads us into a wadding pool until the real action begins in act two when they arrive in New York City to start the caper.
The Walk is a highly flawed film, but maybe that is just the enigma of Zemeckis — a director clawing with indifference at the public that seems to openly respect him. I find it oddly strange that people become so attached to his work when he clearly has such a disdain for them. His last films especially, and even ranging back to Forrest Gump, treat us as imbeciles and spoon-feed us a plot that shouldn’t be that hard to comprehend.
But he also understands the modern moviegoer, who doesn’t mind a little spoon-fed garbage as long as it looks shiny going in. If Spielberg is near the height of cinema, Zemeckis is in the basement whittling away and trying to think of the next con he can make on the American public.