The original script for Gemini Man was in the hands of Tony Scott back in 1997. After two decades of production hell and a half dozen other directors attached, the sci-fi thriller about a hitman and his clone finally hits the big screen, and the plot is the least interesting or inventive part of the entire thing.
Ang Lee is one of those rare talents always itching to make cinema technology move forward, and he’s part of a small number of artists with the clout to do so who’ve fully embraced digital technology. (Think of him and James Cameron as the yin to Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino’s yang.) Cynically, one could argue that Gemini Man is more a proof of concept than it is an actual movie. Even the first shot feels like it’s trying to be home theater demo material. However, for that minority of us who see the exciting narrative possibilities of both 3D and High Frame Rate cinema, having a multiple Oscar winner like Lee spearheading this charge remains a bit of a thrill.
If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you get the gist of the plot. Will Smith is a super assassin, but things go awry and the hunter becomes the hunted, this time by a younger model spawned from his cellular tissue. In 1997, this would have been groundbreaking stuff, but today it feels tired. Fortunately, the story is energized by some wired technology. Lee not only employs the digital de-aging that’s all the rage right now (hello, The Irishman!), but creates a full-on, photorealistic digital actor standing beside his human counterpart. We’ve seen hints of this in other movies, but few if any have gone so hardcore down the cyberthespian route. The process opens up fascinating questions about performance.
Couldn’t Lee have hired another actor to play young Will Smith? Of course. Hell, Jaden’s available. But that wouldn’t have been as interesting to Lee, and it’s clear that this aspect is the thing that’s truly driving his vision. Through the dual Smiths, they explore the challenges of performing multiple characters in different stages of their lives while sharing the screen together.
The movie was shot with a mix of higher than the usual 24 (or, uh, 23.997… or 23.97) frames per second, up to 120. I got a chance to see it projected at 2k/60Hz/3D. Younger viewers won’t notice much of a difference compared to their PlayStation and XBox visuals, while purists will gnash their teeth accordingly. That aforementioned opening shot is of a clam-like building with numerous spans from wall to wall. When the camera pans, there’s no judder or shakiness, simply a smooth transition and a total lack of shearing of the image as the camera moves. Advocates will rejoice, while those craving the more “cinematic” look will be appalled from the first seconds.
Lee has wisely shot his action-packed film to accommodate the higher rate, eschewing whip-pans and other techniques that use motion blur, to instead provide a more sweeping (and, frankly, video game-like) movement throughout the environment. Plenty of POV shots draw the audience in. From an extended motorcycle chase through to fiery explosions and gun fights, the greater clarity, particularly with the addition of 3D, truly does make the film immersive.
Whether this is a good thing for you obviously comes down to taste, but it’s incontrovertible that this is the director’s preferred and intended format. (I’ll leave it to you whether seeing this at 24fps/2D is as egregious as the recent experiments with dubbing and colorizing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.) Where things get wonky is the larger-than-life performances that are endemic to these kinds of action tentpole movies. There’s nowhere to hide, and with every micro-expression and eye tic picked up in exceptional detail, it’s hard not to feel the end result is too broad, too theatrical without the suspension of disbelief we’ve grown accustomed to after over a century of the blurry compromise of 24fps.
Most reading this site have done worse things than to treat a film as demo material, ignoring any plot elements in favor of peering at the picture quality, and that’s what makes Gemini Man worth discussing above all. It’s not just that the technology overwhelms the narrative; the story is so banal, the ups and downs so predictable, that without these hooks there’d be nothing to talk about at all, save for a warning to not even bother.
Still, if you want to glimpse a bit into an uncertain future via a script out of the past that has aged into something pretty mediocre, Gemini Man is for you. It’s an interesting exercise for those willing to give it a look. While its legacy may be as a footnote in the long line of visual effects extravaganzas, Lee’s insistence on pushing the ball forward should be applauded.