“The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis’ death-defying chronicle of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, opens Wednesday for a week-long run in IMAX theaters before opening wider, and even the less enthusiastic reviews of the movie, which opened the New York Film Festival Friday night, agree that there’s only one way to really see it. Although it’s based in fact, re-covering ground trod by James Marsh’s documentary, “Man on Wire,” “The Walk” is built around a singular spectacle no less than “Jurassic World,” only instead of waiting for the dinosaurs to show, we’re biding our time until Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes that first heart-stopping step.
Critics are nearly unanimous in characterizing the early stretches of “The Walk” as a slog, with the movie laboring to explain (and re-explain) why Petit and his Francophone comrades are speaking heavily accented English instead of their native language; Gordon-Levitt’s accent is, more than once, likened to that of an amorous cartoon skunk. But most conclude that those shortcomings are overcome, if not outright obliterated, by its climax, which puts Zemeckis’ gift for staging spectacle to unprecedented use. (Acrophobics be warned: Reports of viewers dry-heaving in the bathroom are no exaggeration.) There’s an argument to be had about whether a movie named for a single sequence needs to deliver anything but — is there a twister in “Twister”? Sold. — but as far as “The Walk’s” walk goes, Zemeckis is on solid ground.
Reviews of “The Walk”
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
Robert Zemeckis’s glimmering dream of a film takes two buildings that have become emblematic of everything that’s frightening and uncertain about 21st century life in the West and redeems them. It turns Petit’s stunt, which was one hundred percent illegal, and completed without a harness, into a kind of pre-emptive retort to the attacks of September 11th, 2001 — a reminder that beauty, fun and the irresistible human impulse to create are the stuff that dissolves terror on contact.
Zemeckis turns the event into a kind of blockbuster Cinéma Pur – an almost avant-garde game of composition, movement and perspective, exhilaratingly attuned to form and space. (“Mad Max: Fury Road” did the same.) The camerawork is subtle and meticulous, the 3D head-spinningly well-applied. On his day, Zemeckis has a better feel for the simple power of this stuff than almost anyone — and that (again, like “Mad Max”), the best cutting-edge spectacle filmmaking demands a bone-deep understanding of the medium’s past.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
From its opening minutes, “The Walk” unleashes a grab bag of tricks engineered for a large format. Presented at the festival in RealD 3D, it features eye-popping, IMAX-friendly visuals that poke out at viewers’ eyeballs and sometimes threaten to pierce them. As Petit recalls his early performance artist days as a mime on the Parisian streets, Zemeckis presents the playful character in black-and-white, while individual objects that figure into his antics stand out in color. He juggles bowling balls that hover just beyond the edges of the screen, but the grey images point to the silent film era — a Chaplinesque quality that connects the story to cinema’s past.
A.O. Scott, New York Times
Even though the outcome is never in doubt — this may be the most spoiler-proof movie ever made — you can’t help but hold your breath and clutch the armrests when Philippe steps out into the sky. The reality of the moment is so vivid that you may reflexively recoil, as if you risked plunging onto the sidewalk below. And the moment lasts. I had forgotten just how long Mr. Petit stayed up there, stretching a daredevil act into an astonishing and durable work of art. In paying tribute to that accomplishment, Mr. Zemeckis has also matched it. He has used all his brazenness and skill to make something that, once it leaves the ground, defies not only gravity, but time as well.
Charles Gant, Screen International
“Gravity” with skyscrapers: taking a page out of the Alfonso Cuarón playbook, Robert Zemeckis aims for blockbuster success by reaching for, and in fact delivering, a big-screen experience that cinemagoers have never previously sampled. Telling the story of French wirewalker Philippe Petit’s daring exploits a quarter of a mile up in the air between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in August 1974, “The Walk” is never better than when it is bringing amply evident creative and technical skill to make us woozy with vertigo — further amplified in IMAX 3D.
Peter Debruge, Variety
In “The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis dares audiences to look down, zooming fast as gravity past 110 stories from the top of the World Trade Center to the expectant faces in the crowd below. A quarter of a mile above, daredevil high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soft-shoes between New York City’s two tallest buildings in a breathtaking stunt the lunatic Frenchman believes could be “the most audacious work of art that has ever been done.”For a man whose name literally means “little,” Petit sure talks a big game. Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they re-create the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a thrilling 3D, all-angles view of an experience that, until now, only one man on Earth could claim to have lived. What Zemeckis delivers here is an entirely different brand of spectacle from what audiences have come to expect from recent studio tentpoles, sharing a true story so incredible it literally must be seen to be believed, as opposed to imaginary feats full of impossible CG creatures.
Drew McWeeny, HitFix
I knew that I was looking at the state-of-the-art of what visual effects could accomplish in the year 2015 and not actual footage of an event in the ’70s. Even so, the new Robert Zemeckis film “The Walk” made my hands sweat and my stomach ache for a solid 45 minutes, and I suspect it’s going to be a big-screen sensation thanks to people going back to witness it several times…. I find myself at peace with the two different halves of Robert Zemeckis, maybe for the first time in 20 years. I was a rabid fan at the start of his career, then hit a stretch of films where I didn’t care for any of what he was doing, and then have wrestled with my complicated reactions to his scripts as opposed to his technical acumen. When he is on, though, no one can do quite what Zemeckis does. He is an illusionist on a level that David Copperfield can only dream of, and he can accomplish real magic from time to time.
Bryan Bishop, The Verge
With Zemeckis at the helm — only his second live-action movie in 15 years — it’s seemed all but guaranteed that the movie will pull off a mix of whimsical filmmaking and visual effects, but other than some obvious high-wire gimmicks what would the ever-present IMAX 3D actually add to the proceedings? The answer is terror. Utter, absolute terror.
Dan Callahan, The Wrap
This is irresistible movie material: the lead-up to the wire-walk has all the elements of a heist, with Petit (here played by an elfin Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a thick French accent) as the fearless or at least highly determined leader of a loosely assembled group. The fun here is that so many things could go wrong for Petit’s plan at any moment — and things, in fact, sometimes do go wrong in ways both expected and unexpected — but it’s in what goes right for our hero that “The Walk” finds both its spine and its heart.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” is all about “The Walk”.” That’s to say, the movie comes to dazzling life in its spectacular final 40 minutes or so, when Philippe Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, saunters out on a cable and gives us a vertiginous view of the French tightrope walker’s 1974 aerial feat, as he tiptoed across the clouds between the towers of the World Trade Center. Harnessing the wizardry of 3-D IMAX to magnify the sheer transporting wonder, the you-are-there thrill of the experience, the film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.
Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist
The dream itself, and its death-defying achievement on screen, is tense, anxiety-inducing, and ravishingly grand, and it’s boundlessly suspenseful even though we know the outcome. However, it’s the journey to the destination that’s sorely lacking, even if it seems meaningless in hindsight — “The Walk” is a movie fully engineered toward its radiant crescendo and doesn’t place much of a premium on its origins.
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers was several things: illegal, death-defying, comically absurd and, as evoked in the majestic 2008 documentary Man on Wire, suffused with a kind of coolheaded cosmopolitan poetry. Recreating the crime for “The Walk”, director Robert Zemeckis does a crackerjack job with the thrills and a so-so one with the laughs (at least the intentional ones) and skips the deeper magic altogether.
Nigel Smith, Guardian
“The Walk” opens by announcing that it’s based on a true story. This is indeed true: as anyone who has seen James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” — about Philippe Petit’s dare-devil trip on a tightrope between the twin towers in 1974 — knows. After watching Robert Zemeckis’s 3D retelling, you’d be forgiven for thinking it never actually happened…. The story “The Walk” tells is, admittedly, an unbelievable one, so it’s understandable Zemeckis should choose to leave subtlety at the door. Sadly, such an approach strips the film of tension, especially at the crucial moment.
David Jenkins, Little White Lies
Zemeckis has spoken about the desire to show this act that no-one bar its key participants got to witness from close proximity. He even wants to attempt to emulate what it felt like for Petit to be out there on the wire. And yet in doing so, he makes it seem less miraculous, transforming it into a banal act, achievable by mortals. Even the spectacle itself has its edges dulled, as once it happens, it’s then replayed (to exponential levels of tedium) over and over.
Jaime N. Christley, Slant
When “The Walk” delivers its final emotional payload, it’s an overwhelming vertiginous sensation of an entirely different kind: Breaking the fourth wall as he narrates his tale from the top of the Statue of Liberty, Petit shows us his lifetime pass to visit the World Trade Center observatory. The expiration date, he explains, has been crossed out and overwritten with one word: “forever.” The September 11 attacks are mentioned not once in the film, and as the final spoken word, “forever,” is followed by the final image, we see the towers nestled among their Lower Manhattan neighbors. As the image fades to black, they remain lit the longest. Superficially a film about a daredevil and his once-in-a-lifetime stunt, “The Walk” is, at its core, a film about a pair of buildings imbued by human spirit, superseding and, finally, outlasting all other concerns.