People (usually critics) like to opine about the proliferation of CGI and effects-driven films that saturate the multiplexes, and it's true that a lot of these films (and by extension, their effects) are slapdash efforts that arise out of bloated blockbuster budgets. But that's not always the case: used properly and with purpose, digital effects can be a useful tool for a filmmaker. This scornful view of CGI comes mostly from the fact that while it's easy to pick out bad examples of CGI, successful effects are often invisible. The best examples are ones tied directly to story, adding a sensory experience to an already compelling narrative. Even something like 3D can -- in the right hands -- transcend the realm of cheap tricks to dramatically alter the experience of watching a film.
Robert Zemeckis's "The Walk," for example, makes exhilarating use of the IMAX 3D format as it breathlessly recreates French tightrope artist Philippe Petit (played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) most daring act. There's already one great movie about Petit's stunt, James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire," but instead of feeling unnecessary, this film functions as a nice companion piece to that documentary. The 3D effects don't just provide immersive atmosphere, but take us to places that wouldn't otherwise be possible, putting us up on the wire right alongside Petit.
"The Walk" dramatizes Petit's real-life (and highly illegal) walk across a wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Petit narrates the tale, which begins in France. Detailing the performer's origin story, Zemeckis goes a bit overboard on the whimsy in this section, presenting street scenes of Paris in black-and-white with random bits of color. We see Petit ride around on a unicycle, juggling and wooing a pretty busker named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and later learning the tricks of his trade by studying under a Czech acrobat he calls Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). It's all a bit exhausting. Petit delivers this narration directly to the camera while sitting atop of the Statue of Liberty, and while the device is unabashedly hokey, it fits in with Zemeckis' tone of a fairy tale-ish heightened reality, and you eventually get used to it. Though occasionally putting us inside Petit's headspace, the constant narration has a tendency toward hand-holding, spelling out the emotional temperature of the each scene we're watching.
Things pick up considerably once Petit travels to New York to stage "the coup," as he refers to it. Zemeckis' digital effects recreate an immaculate portrait of 1970's New York City, and he stages the action as a heist, with Petit rounding up a team to help him pull off his daredevil scheme. Standouts of the crew include a photographer named J.P. (James Badge Dale) and shy Jeff (César Domboy), who wants adventure but happens to be afraid of heights. Together they help sneak the necessary equipment into the building and past security while working out the many problems that arise along the way.
As you might expect, the film's centerpiece is the extended sequence documenting Petit's walk across the wire, and it is legitimately breathtaking (I admit that I caught myself holding my breath during much of the sequence). Containing moments of unbelievable beauty, it's as pure a distillation of movie magic as you can get. It even leads to a relatively subtle and moving elegy to the Towers themselves, acknowledging their ultimately sad place in our country's history.
Gordon-Levitt's performance is quite good; yes, he lays it on pretty thick with the accent, but he captures Petit's manic intensity and flair for the theatrical. He's perhaps even better during the actual walk: often without dialogue, he expresses every bit of the exhilaration and joy Petit is feeling.
Zemeckis has always enjoyed melding his narratives to the latest special effects techniques, and "The Walk" is no different. The film was released in IMAX 3D last Friday, and expands to traditional theaters this week. But if you're going to see the movie, it's worth springing for the additional cost. Though I'd caution that if heights aren't your thing, it might be a good idea to skip this movie: You absolutely feel as though you are suspended 110 stories above the streets of New York City, about to step into the void.