Hollywood has spent much of the last three decades gradually improving computer-generated imagery (CGI) in hopes of achieving true photorealism without using a camera. The promise — as conceived by early CGI pioneers — was unlimited creative power for filmmakers no longer obliged to build costly sets or devise elaborate in-camera effects. Whatever writers and directors imagined would be created on high-powered computers and presented on the big screen.
A major breakthrough in CGI that occurred 10 years ago resulted mainly in a rash of mediocre action films, many featuring the destruction of the world's great cities as familiar landmarks crumbled convincingly on screen. The problem, it seemed, was not just developing photorealistic CGI but also figuring out what to do with it.
Today, the quest for CGI photorealism appears to have ended in unqualified success. For proof we have director Robert Zemeckis' wildly entertaining The Walk, which depicts a gloriously unfilmable real-life event — French aerial artist Phillippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Viewed in IMAX 3-D, The Walk's CGI-generated images are breathtaking. But Zemeckis also solved the larger, tougher problem by employing all that hard-won technology in service of an engaging human-scale story.
The Walk begins on shaky ground with a device that might have been hokey enough to sink the film before it got started. Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) addresses the audience directly from the top of the Statue of Liberty, the twin towers soaring behind him as he explains his singular worldview and narrates his early, formative experiences in Paris. Gordon-Levitt spent eight days learning how to handle a high wire under direction of Petit (now 66) to prepare for The Walk and even nails Petit's intentionally exaggerated French accent without slipping into parody. Mostly he generates the kind of charisma that draws you in against your will, even as the film repeatedly returns to the statue for additional narration.
The Walk begins to feel like a heist movie as Petit assembles the ragtag crew he needs to pull off his surreptitious and very illegal "coup" at the top of the Trade Center. It all leads to the pure pleasure and one-of-a-kind thrills provided by the walk itself, as vividly imagined for the film. (Early reports claiming the movie left a recent New York Film Festival audience sick from vertigo appear to have been greatly exaggerated.) Zemeckis shot the film in 2-D for later conversion to 3-D, a process that previously yielded inferior results. The technique now allows precise adjustment of the level and intensity of 3-D effects, making possible The Walk's spectacular visual feats.
On the surface, Petit's high-wire performance (one of many he has managed throughout his life) may sound like a cheap stunt. But the film's greatest success is in capturing the magic of Petit's peculiar art, especially as seen here — for the first time — from the artist's perspective.
There is a surreal, almost dream-like quality to The Walk that suits its subject matter well. It also frames the film's unspoken but easily discerned tribute to the twin towers, along with a tacit acknowledgement of the unspeakable loss they now represent. Just as the towers only earned favor among many New Yorkers after Petit danced in the air between them, The Walk helps reclaim our memory of the World Trade Center as the site of at least one transcendent act of beauty and courage. A more fitting tribute to those we lost is hard to imagine.