Movies Need to Stop Explaining Everything (Looking at You, The Walk)

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Sony, Warner Bros and Disney

There’s one shot from Mad Max: Fury Road that has stuck with me longer than most of the two-hour movies I’ve seen this year, and if you blink, you’re liable to miss it. The moment comes deep into the movie, as Fury Road’s dazzling all-day car chase has given way to blue-hued night, and our heroes have driven to a new, different wasteland. The shot that establishes this new location puts their familiar convoy deep into the background, while the foreground is dominated by dead trees, misty muck, and a handful of unearthly, silhouetted feathered beasts.

The first time I saw this shot, I sat up in my seat. Fury Road had already presented more than its fair share of eye-popping visuals, but I found my imagination most captured by these freaky, feathered things. It was impossible to glimpse their faces in the dark, but the way these bird-beasts moved slowly through the sludge on stiltlike legs was arresting, and rare: They never appeared again in any other scene, nor were they acknowledged by our characters. It wasn’t even until my second viewing that I realized these were not mutant birds but hunched men in ragged feather coats, likely postapocalyptic scavengers forced to travel through the swamp on spidery stilt legs. That was my read, anyway. Anything I wanted to know about these figures, I had to figure out myself.

I thought about those bird-men while watching The Walk, the new Robert Zemeckis film about French daredevil Philippe Petit, who performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It isn’t just that Petit’s grace and balance reminded me of those stilt-walking swamp-dwellers, though I have no doubt that if the eager Petit were swept off to Fury Road, he’d scamper over to the bird-men, swipe their stilts, and say, “Let me try!” Rather, the reason I thought of Mad Max while watching The Walk is that the former film presented its evocative images and then encouraged me to use my imagination, while the latter papered over its visual poetry with unrelenting, unnecessary voice-over.

Nearly the whole film is choked with narration, and the device is introduced early on, as we see Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) addressing the camera from the torch held by the Statue of Liberty. (Not exactly afraid of heights, this one.) But Zemeckis doesn’t just use that voice-over to introduce Petit and then let him run free: Instead, it’s a cloying crutch, employed repeatedly to overexplain what we’re seeing. What’s more, verbalizing Petit’s inner life actually robs Gordon-Levitt of the chance to convey it.

Nowhere is this more egregious than in the wire-walk sequence itself. Visually, it’s one of the most astonishing things Zemeckis has ever produced on-screen — even more so if you have the chance to see it in 3-D, where the preponderance of first-person shots gives the scene a you-are-there immediacy. But it’s not enough for Zemeckis to literally put us into Petit’s head: He also floods the sequence with voice-over, leaving little room for us to come to our own conclusions about what we’re seeing. Everything we need to know about Petit is already on Gordon-Levitt’s face, and everything we need to know about the danger of the walk is apparent in those vertiginous shots. If only the filmmaker had trusted in their potency and cut all that narration. When Petit goes out silent on that wire, so should Zemeckis.

Why do so many movies feel the need to overexplain everything? Few films this year have trusted us to fill in the blanks ourselves; much more often, they’re inclined to double-underline. I’m thinking of lugubrious action films like Jurassic World and San Andreas, which ground to a halt every time characters had to overexplain things to each other, but especially the exposition-laden Tomorrowland, where each clever concept came burdened with a Wikipedia entry’s worth of explanation. (Some would call that world-building. I would call it completely superfluous.) One of the coolest things in Tomorrowland is a freeze gun that encases its target in a bubble that slowly shrinks, and once that bubble is fully diminished, the target is free again. You’d have been able to intuit how the freeze gun worked by seeing it in action, but of course the filmmakers didn’t trust the power of their own idea and forced a character to explain it on the fly. There’s a thrill in putting the pieces together yourself, and I wish Tomorrowland had known that. No one wants a Lego set that’s already been built.

I worry, too, that Hollywood’s new emphasis on cinematic universes will leave even fewer stones unturned. Everything interesting about the original Star Wars trilogy was over-dissected in the prequels, where Darth Vader was made more mundane, the mysterious Boba Fett was unmasked, and the Force was given a scientific explanation no one wanted. You’d think the makers of Star Wars would have learned their lessons, but they’re now making two spinoff films that promise to uncover Han Solo’s backstory and the theft of Death Star plans alluded to in A New Hope’s crawl. What if I don’t actually want to know about those things? Must every mystery or backstory now receive an explanation? Ridley Scott, this goes for you, too: Every time I read that the Prometheus sequels will continue to link up with the original Alien series, I die inside, even though Aliens is one of my favorite movies. I ought to want more of it, but I’m not naïve: I know how disappointed I’d be if I actually got the answers I've mulled for years.

Moviemakers think they’re doing us a service by giving us more of what intrigues us, but the more they tell us, the less we seem to care. I don’t know anything about the bird-men from Mad Max, and that’s exactly what sent my imagination into overdrive. I knew even less about what Charlize Theron's Furiosa was doing before we met her in that film, but based on the thoughts we see flicker on Theron's steely face, I came to conclusions about the character that I still turn over every now and then in my head — I'm curious whether I got her right, and content to realize I may never know. There’s a crucial place where a movie ends and your imagination begins, and that's where intrigue takes hold. Filmmakers, please leave room for it.