With the advent of new technology in any field, the question arises of whether to fully embrace the future or keep one foot rooted in the past. Every major movie — even if it isn’t shot in 3D — seems to somehow find its way to multiplexes in a 3D-format, video games come out with day-one patches to fix issues actually found before launch, and our entire lives were uprooted by the arrival of the internet. Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is the product of trying to firmly plant itself in the future of filmmaking by employing every digital trick in the cinematic playbook, while also questioning why we make movies the way we do when there are so many other ways to do it. While not wholly successful, Lee uses a story of an aging assassin hunted by a younger version of himself to show that tinkering with the norm does not inherently mean ruining something good.
Gemini Man is going to be a movie that people will either talk about or forget depending on one key difference in their viewing experience: did you watch it in 120 frames per second? Shot in 4K, 3D, and 120 frames per second (as opposed to the usual 2K, 2D, 24 frames per second), most people will never get the opportunity to see Gemini Man as it was originally intended. I was lucky enough to catch it in 2K, 3D, and 60 frames per second, and that felt like an experience unto itself. The high frame rate is what will keep people talking about Ang Lee’s latest because it highlights the path blockbuster filmmaking could potentially take in the near future, and makes viewers question what they have normally taken for granted. However, without that higher frame rate, many will likely miss out on the crisp, clarity of action scenes, which will only exacerbate the mediocrity.
The trouble is that Gemini Man feels like a launch game for a game console more than anything else — or at least, the first wave of something intended to be a proof-of-concept. The story is itself a commentary on the advancement of technology in society, thinly-veiled behind a narrative revolving around the future of warfare. As Henry Brogan (Will Smith) nears retirement from his life of assassination, he is unwittingly thrust into a conspiracy that has him hunted by the agency he once worked for, only to find himself face-to-face with a younger clone of himself. Junior (completely created from the ground up using CG, but “performed” by Smith), who exists as a byproduct of the Gemini project headed by Clay Verris (Clive Owen), begins to question his purpose in life as Henry attempts to give the younger man the second-chance he himself could never have. A globe-trotting adventure ensues, with Henry, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing a fellow agent whose cover is burned), and Baron (Benedict Wong) on-the-run from Junior.
The story is fairly mundane, and only truly works if you’re not watching in the standard 2D, 24 frames per second format. That’s because, without the metaphor that attaches itself so neatly to watching it in a higher frame rate or in 3D, Gemini Man is kind of boring. Its narrative has neat ideas, such as an over-the-hill assassin seeing how the future of warfare will play out while knowing that he will not be a part of it, and watching Henry toy with Junior to make him realize why he was created the way he was is fascinating in theory. However, the emotional pull is simply not there.
A great proof-of-concept for future advances in filmmaking technology that still shows plenty of room to grow.
This is largely due to Junior’s less-than-amazing looks; he’s a CG character in a live-action setting. During nighttime shots, it’s hardly noticeable (which in itself is a triumph of visual effects), but when put into broad daylight, it looks like someone pulled a character from the cutscene of a video game and put him right next to real-life Will Smith, expecting no one to notice. His standing out is a symptom of having actual actors on set who simply emote far better and more realistically than a CG character could ever hope to accomplish.
Ultimately, that’s why Gemini Man is sort of a non-starter. It feels too much like a video game, but without the interactive elements. Now, perhaps this is due to audiences being conditioned to seeing films the way they have always seen films. With even that notion in hand, however, Gemini Man still fluctuates wildly between feeling cheap and like a thrill ride. When characters are just having conversations with each other, it begs the question as to why a higher frame rate was necessary. Yet, when the action kicks in, it is unrelenting, with adrenaline-fueled with setpieces that highlight this intensity. The first really big chase sequence is arguably one of the best pieces of action filmmaking this year, utilizing motorcycles for high-octane thrills as two intelligent characters play cat-and-mouse with each other.
Gemini Man is an entertaining film if seen under the right parameters, where the crisp visuals really benefit it. Ang Lee does what Peter Jackson couldn’t — showing a world that higher frame rate can actually work, under the right circumstances. Perhaps a film with more action and less narrative would have helped greatly, but that’s not Lee’s style. It will be interesting to see whether future films take advantage of the groundwork laid by Jackson and Lee here, but it’s still clear that Gemini Man doesn’t work completely, even if it had a better screenplay. It’s a great proof-of-concept for future advances in filmmaking technology that still shows plenty of room to grow.