What If Someone Made the Theatrical Event of the Year, and No One Went to See It?
The biggest movie screen in New York City is the IMAX at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square — 7448 square feet in an auditorium with 600 seats. It’s Thursday, October 15; the last show of the last day of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk’s run at the theater. In three hours, the film gets replaced by Crimson Peak.
At showtime, every blue seat in the chart below was still available.
That’s about 40 tickets sold, or 7 percent capacity. That’s not an aberration either. In 15 days of release, The Walk has grossed just $7.7 million — and that’s with the inflating surcharges for 3D and IMAX. In its first weekend of limited release, its per-screen average was less than a fifth of that of the arthouse documentary He Named Me Malala and the big sci-fi blockbuster The Martian. It expanded to 2,500 screens last weekend and made just $3.7 million; this time its per-screen average was a paltry $1,482; barely $100 more per screen than Inside Out, which has been playing in theaters for more than four months. Excluding his tiny debut feature I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Walk is the lowest-grossing movie of Zemeckis’ entire career (although it still has a chance to pass Used Cars’ $11.7 million and wind up in second-to-last place). There’s no way around it; The Walk is a flop.
In retrospect, that’s not a huge surprise. The movie is light on big-name stars and its biggest, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, doesn’t have much marquee value. Its posters were bland at best and vague at worst; if you didn’t know the true story the film was based on, there’s no way this image would convince you to spend $21.99 to learn it. If you did know The Walk’s story — of French wire walker Philippe Petit’s high-wire act between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 — then you’ve probably already seen it depicted in the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire. And if you’ve seen Man on Wire then you know how the story ends, which would seem to eliminate much of the possibility for suspense.
There’s also not much suspense in a man suspended a couple feet off the ground in front of a green screen, which is the only way Zemeckis could recreate Philippe’s act in 2015. In fact, the viewer knows at every moment of every shot of the Twin Towers that they are looking at computer-generated images, making the threshold for suspension of disbelief almost as high as the buildings themselves. It also probably didn’t help that early reports claimed the film’s big set-piece was so convincing that it was actually making some viewers puke. Intense, authentic feelings can be a huge selling point — unless that intense, authentic feeling is nausea followed by vomiting, in which case it’s a bit of a turnoff. (“Hey hun! Wanna go see The Walk tonight? I heard it’ll make us puke our guts out!”) Hell, even the title is bland. “The Walk?” The movie sounds boring.
If The Walk was going to have any chance at the box office, it was going to need great reviews. It only got decent ones, with most critics praising Zemeckis’ detailed recreation of the title act while deriding his artistic choices elsewhere; particularly his use of a curious framing device, where Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit narrates the story from high atop the Statue of Liberty. The consensus view of The Walk was best expressed by A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. “Philippe,” he writes, “in addition to being an aspiring wire walker, is a juggler, a mime, and a unicyclist. He is, as I’ve mentioned, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This makes him, objectively speaking, the most annoying person on earth.”
That’s probably why I waited so long to see it. I missed the press screenings while traveling to various festivals throughout September, and almost everyone I spoke with said basically the same thing: that the high-wire stuff was magnificent (or vomit inducing!) but that the rest was completely forgettable. I only went to see it yesterday because I knew it was my last chance — maybe ever— to see the movie on a true IMAX screen. Watching this one on my laptop simply wouldn’t do.
And that, in a nutshell, is why The Walk is such a beautiful film — because it is about more than a man walking between the Twin Towers (although that sequence is even more spectacular than you’ve heard). For Zemeckis, Philippe is a symbol (and perhaps a kindred spirit) of an artist who follows his muse into territory others consider impossible, and the movie itself functions as a tribute to those defiant artists who refuse to bow to fear. In an era when people are consuming more and more movies away from movie theaters, here is a film that simply must be experienced on a big-screen. To see it any other way — on a television, computer, tablet, or (GOD FORBID) a smartphone — is to miss almost everything essential about it. And making a movie that can only be appreciated on a big screen in this environment is as reckless a gesture as trying to kneel down on a wire between two 110-story buildings.
The story of The Walk is familiar, but the storytelling is transportive. The framing device with Philippe standing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch is whimsical, but then so is Philippe Petit. It seems like precisely the place an outsized showman like Philippe would choose to tell his story. It keeps Petit and his voice present throughout the entire movie. And it allows Zemeckis to keep the World Trade Center present throughout as well; a perpetual reminder of not only Petit’s goal but the unspoken, tragic epilogue of this story (one that’s also alluded to in touching, classy fashion in the film’s very last scene).
A.O. Scott calls Philippe “the most annoying person on earth.” It’s a great line, and on paper he should be, but Gordon-Levitt’s performance is so charming, sincere, and enthusiastic, that he makes it easy to see how Philippe convinced so many people to help him achieve his “coup” at the WTC. The rest of the cast is wonderful too, including James Badge Dale as one of those accomplices and Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, the wire walker and mentor who teaches Petit the tricks of his trade.
The last hour of the film treats Philippe’s coup in the style of a classic heist film, with lively music from composer Alan Silverstri and tense moments where the plan nearly falls apart over and over again (nearly all of which are backed by the facts presented in Man on Wire). The first hour is about Philippe’s art, and the work of artists in general: how they find their inspiration; how every artist is also a bit of an anarchist; and how artists cannot lie when they’re onstage, or their audience will know it.
Then comes the walk itself, which is truly one of the most physically potent sequences I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater. Zemeckis, whose past films include Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Flight, and Back to the Future (a movie that concludes with something of a improvised high-wire act), might be the best director alive when it comes to combining special effects and real human beings, and at using CGI to evoke an emotional response. Even though the World Trade Centers no longer exist, even though Joseph Gordon-Levitt was never more than a dozen feet off the ground, even though everything we see was built inside a computer, Zemeckis and his team of visual artists create an incredibly authentic simulation of Philippe and his high-wire act. They capture the beauty, the exhilaration, and the danger; the sensation of height was so palpable that I kept having to wipe my clammy palms off on my jeans. By the end of the film, my shirt was soaked with sweat.
There is a lot of discussion these days about how television has surpassed movies, and how movies have ceded the realm of adult storytelling to television, and how the cinematic medium is generally in decline. Certainly television holds advantages over movies in certain areas. It tells stories over a span of years instead of a span of minutes, allowing for dense plotting and character development that most movies cannot hope to match. But The Walk is a reminder that there are still things that movies can do that television cannot. A television show couldn’t put you up on that wire with Philippe Petit. It couldn’t envelop you in the sights and sounds of New York City at 110 stories above the Earth. Only a movie, seen in a large, dark, and quiet theater, could provoke such a profoundly visceral experience. This isn’t a comic book come to life. This isn’t an beat-for-beat adaptation of best-selling novel. This is a movie.
The fact that a movie as special as The Walk flopped as badly as it did says that these are challenging times for filmmakers who want to break through the stereotypes about modern Hollywood and its obsession with franchises and superheroes. During one of their contentious arguments, Papa Rudy scolds Philippe for failing to show his audience the proper respect. “Without an audience,” he explains “there is no show,” and in that sense, The Walk hasn’t been much of a show so far. Spending 1500 words trying to convince you to see a movie at the end of its theatrical run might be a quixotic undertaking — but in this case that puts me in very good company. Hopefully a few people will read this, find the movie on the big screen, and rediscover the unique power of film.