It would be an understatement to call director Ang Lee anything short of a mastermind. The two-time Academy Award winner has reached this rank through incredible films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. However, not many take into account that Lee has built his entire career on the back of his ingenuity. Take a look at the man’s filmography and each film could not be more different than the last. The same goes for his latest movie, Gemini Man; although it operates heavily under the mission Lee first set out with in 2012’s Life of Pi: Advancing the theatrical experience.
Gemini Man follows Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a seasoned assassin who is ready to retire and explore ways to do a different kind of good in the world. His own government cannot let him settle down without betraying him first, but Brogan being their former elite asset makes for a tough fish to catch. How does a corrupt government take down their most lethal human weapon? The answer is simple, clone him without his knowledge years in advance and train the clone to be a superior copy! The most absurd showdown between present-aged Brogan and a younger Brogan in peak physique ensues.
In many instances, Gemini Man comes down to the exploitation of Will Smith vs. Will Smith. This is achieved through recent cutting edge digital de-aging effects. Lee has not played with this much science-fiction since 2003’s Hulk. Given how far he has come as a filmmaker, it would first appear that Lee handling the original absurdity of Gemini Man could only make for a modern sci-fi epic. Unfortunately, the result is that of a maestro drowned by his own devices.
Lee has been toying with 3D cinema tech since Life of Pi. He has stated that the film could have not been made sooner because the technology he needed was not ready. His gorgeous visuals blended practical effects and CGI to form a fluid, and vivid 3D experience. He took this one step further with his next film in 2016, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He chose to shoot a story of U.S. Iraq War veterans in 120 frames per second. This is an extreme contrast to the cinematic standard way of shooting films in 24 fps. Shooting at higher fps can eliminate motion blur and increase the level of details and depth in a frame. Lee sees this as essential for the growth of 3D cinema, but many did not see Billy Lynn as the perfect match for this style – enter Gemini Man.
Surely the tale of an assassin literally facing his younger self was the perfect match for this style? Audiences can either pay to see the film at standard 24 fps or high frame rate 3D. The film was shot in 120 fps, but most HFR 3D showings will be in 60 fps. The thrill of seeing present Will Smith vs. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air era Will Smith should be enough to carry a normal non-3D showing, but that is not the case. It feels as if Lee was so deep into crafting footage in HFR 3D that he forgot to check on some of his other fundamentals. The unchecked downfalls of Gemini Man lie within the characters and story that awkwardly feel like they come from the first draft of the script.
To be clear, the talented cast should not take any of the blame here. Smith is joined by the likes of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), and Clive Owen (Inside Man). All are superb actors who do the best they can with the cards they are dealt. It does not take long for Gemini Man to make the viewer feel like its talent is being underutilized. The comparison to the first draft of a script comes from odd dialogue and thin lining. Most of the character relationships are verbally told instead of being physically expressed. The majority of exposition (which should be interesting because this is a movie about clones) is told in unimaginative ways. The story fails to consistently take viewers to engaging places. The lunacy of an assassin clone drama feels overall toned down by these roadblocks. For such a topic knee-deep in sci-fi, things should have gotten weirder.
There is little reason to hang on for the ride except for the cloning gimmick, which thankfully finds some time to shine. Smith’s de-aging is great for the most part, and his movements and actions do genuinely make him feel young. The interactions between the two Smiths will assure audiences that they are at least getting a bang for their buck (at minimum). This is where the few moments of Lee’s brilliance peek through the cracks of a weak narrative. It really does feel like the two Smiths are separate from one another and it rarely feels silly to the point of breaking interest.
The main selling point of Gemini Man is to see the two Smiths face off. Lee being so invested in the technical aspects makes this selling point a success. Despite all the negatives, Lee still manages to deliver some of the best action one can see from this year. The choreography is not only creative, but the levels of intensity also reach entertaining heights. If one were to see the film in HFR 3D, the way Lee wants you to see it, the experience is completely enhanced. The movie screen transforms into a giant window where it feels like one is seeing real people in action instead of actors doing stunts. The smooth action combined with the innovative 3D makes one feel like they can jump into the picture. The level of detail is much more layered and noticeable.
Lee has taken obvious inspiration from video games that operate in HFR with POV shots that feel straight out of Call of Duty. The film is clearly made for HFR 3D, but the format still may not be for everyone. Even though the action will remind you why Lee is a mastermind, the rest of the film’s weaknesses will make some non-action scenes look like they are from a daytime soap opera. Audiences are so used to seeing films in 24 fps that the soap opera look might be too uncanny. Those with vision impairments might also have trouble with the HFR motions.
Usually, a film review would not spend so much time discussing the technology behind the film. Gemini Man is a rare case where the subject is impossible to avoid because of the director’s passion for the tech. The film was specifically shot in HFR 3D to further the awareness of the format. Films have the difficult task of finding a balance between story and visuals. For the most part, visuals should serve and enhance the story. Gemini Man has the opposite case of story serving and enhancing the visuals. This makes the film at best feel like an enthralling tech demo, more than a multi-layered narrative. This could not be more unfortunate because one can feel a modern sci-fi epic with a potential future under Gemini Man‘s skin. Who would not want to see more of their favorite actors face off against their younger selves?
Gemini Man hits theaters Friday, October 11.