GEMINI MAN ½
2019, PG-13, 117 mins.
Will Smith as Henry Brogen / Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Danny / Clive Owen as Clay Verris / Benedict Wong as Baron / Linda Emond as Lassiter / Theodora Miranne as Kitty / Justin James Boykin as Connor / Alexandra Szucs as Aniko
Directed by Ang Lee / Written by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke
Ang Lee's GEMINI MAN is a new sci-fi espionage thriller of some strange contradictions.
It represents a
pretty astounding leap forward in the area of photo-realistic CGI, but at
the same time it contains regressive minded, paint-by-numbers scripting
that feels like the product of something that should have been released
decades ago (the screenplay itself has laid dormant for years, with many a
filmmaker trying to take on the material, but backing away when the VFX
technology required for it wasn't up to snuff). The basic premise for GEMINI MAN is an intriguing, if not
somewhat derivative one (what if a middle aged assassin was hunted down by
a twenty-something clone of himself, which movies like LOOPER
have sort of already dabbled with), and Lee employs some truly watershed
effects to bring this story to life alongside crafting some utterly
absurd, but thoroughly sensational action sequences.
If only the storytelling was as fresh as the craft that went into
this film, then we'd really have a truly memorable and transcending genre
MAN contains so many bloody compelling ideas, especially in its tale of a
roughed, rugged, and world weary government agent that's forced against
his will to go mano-a-mano against a young version of himself, genetically
created by the same government that gave him his livelihood.
Cloning has been the stuff of science fiction for years, to be
sure, but Lee's film at least poses some intriguing questions about the
nature of humanity and what constitutes individuality and a soul, but the
screenplay here by David Benioff,
Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke never
seems equal to the task of rendering this material as thoughtfully as they
perhaps wants. More often
than not, GEMINI MAN comes off more as a proof of concept demo reel for
its VFX and camera choices (more on the latter in a bit) than a truly
captivating and richly scripted sci-fi yarn.
The visual and technical wow factor of Lee's film is exceedingly
high at times (if anything, the Oscar winning Taiwanese director has never
shied away from any genre or genre challenge), but the narrative drives of
the piece are decidedly ho-hum.
young looking Will Smith plays 51-year-old Henry Brogan here, a top
government agent that is usually hired for hits that require his unique
stealthy skill set (demonstrated in the opening sections of the film,
showcasing him snipe his prey while he's on a high speed moving train from
a mile away). After amassing
an insanely high kill count over the years, Henry decides to call it quits
so that he can retire to some semblance of normalcy with his sanity mostly
in check. His former
mentor/boss in Clay Verris (a snarling and scenery chewing Clive Owen)
believes that his ex-protégée is a scary liability, so he conspires with
other higher ups in Black Ops to "retire" Henry into a casket.
Henry is able to spot one undercover agent early on in Danny (Mary
Elizabeth Winstead), but soon it becomes clear that both of their lives
are in extreme danger, forcing them both on the run.
Complicating things immensely is the startling discovery that one
operative in particular that's perusing them is just as good as Henry in
the field...but only because he is Henry, at least a three decades
younger clone of him that's been raised and trained by Clay.
Smith has one of
the most recognizable mugs in the industry, and one that has literally
spanned twenty-plus years. Most are familiar with how the star looked in decades past
compared to now, leaving the visual effects magicians at Weta Digital in a
unique, yet incredibly challenging position to create a satisfyingly
authentic looking young Smith doppelganger for his current self to lock
horns with. GEMINI MAN is
certainly not the very first film to feature a prominent lead actor to
undergo digital de-aging, but Lee and Weta are doing something more
ambitious and unprecedented here. Utilizing
similar motion capture technology featured in AVATAR
and the recent PLANET OF
THE APES reboot films, young cloned Smith (at least from the head
up) is completely computer generated as opposed to taking the
actor's face and giving it a digital facelift.
The end results are, at times, astonishing and represent a new
benchmark for how synthetic humans will be created moving forward in
cinema. That's not to say
that there isn't any rough patches here and there (some shots in broad
daylight give the effect totally away), but there remains a handful of
jaw-dropping moments when the faux Smith looks eerily real.
This is the best a fully computer generated human face has ever
look in a mainstream film.
Then there's the
very challenge of having scenes with both Smiths facing off against one
another, and all without the effects drawing too much distracting
scrutiny, and Lee has mostly pulled it off resoundingly well here.
One of the more bravura action sequences in GEMINI MAN occurs early
on with a foot and motorcycle chase through crowded Cartagena streets that
has to be seen to be believed. It
culminates with baby faced Henry using his motorcycle as an extended
martial arts appendage in ways that would make Jackie Chan blush with envy
(it's like kung fu, but with motorcycles).
This is followed by a pretty mesmerizing fist fight between Henry and
his clone in a dark catacomb where Lee doesn't shy away at all from
employing tight close-ups to show off, yes, that the real Smith is indeed
mashing his face up against his artificially concocted double.
There's something liberating about witnessing Lee use technology in
new ways to craft scenes that would otherwise be engineered with two
different actors as ring partners. The
uncanny valley effect (that obtrusive conceit that makes it hard for
viewers to buy into humanoid digital creations) has certainly been
narrowed in this film.
But speaking of
distracting technology, Lee has decided to shoot GEMINI MAN not only in
4K, but also in 3D and at 120 frames per second, which is the second film
on his resume after BILLY
LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK to use such methods.
For nearly 100 years movies have been presented at 24 fps, which
essentially means that Lee is shooting his films that end up requiring
about 40 times more data being captured and later processed.
That, and the images are projected at a five times higher frame
rate than just about any film you've ever seen (that basically means
nearly everything in the frame is in sharp focus and that motion blurring
of anything is non-existent). Here's
the problem, though: There is no cinema in the U.S. capable of presenting
GEMINI MAN as Lee intended - 4K, 3D, and 120 fps - and there exists only
14 cinemas in the same nation capable of 2K, 2D, and 120 fps showings.
I guess this brings up one logical question: Why would Lee continue
to obsessively and aggressively commit to shooting films this way if 99%
of cinemas in North America have no manner of projecting them to his
specifications for the filmgoing masses?
Here's the other thing: A lot of people loathe the look of films shot this way (at least the few that have seen it at 120 fps). My screening here in Saskatoon was at a compromised 2K, 3D, and 60 fps, and I have a few takeaways: (1) This was arguably the best implementation of 3D I've ever seen in a cinema (which arguably has much to do with the higher frame rate, leaving a brighter image and less strobing), and (2) I have never seem movie images as sharp, bright, crisp, and clean as what I saw in this film. But these same images rarely felt, well, cinematic at all and lacked the grit and texture of films shot at normal frame rates. Still, I don't think that HFR movies are something to automatically dismiss (as most critics are hostilely doing). During some moments in GEMINI MAN the HFR effect didn't totally diminish my viewing experience, but there were many more times when the sterile looking imagery was aesthetically displeasing to the eye. I would chime in to say that I'd like to see this HFR tech evolve (James Cameron is reportedly preaching its virtues for the unreleased AVATAR sequels), but as for this fundamentally altering the landscape of movies forever...cinephiles shouldn't have anything to worry about.
guess that I'm in the minority for thinking that GEMINI MAN is nowhere
near the qualitative trainwreck that many critics have let on.
Lee's film features a tremendous amount of untamed creative
ambition, and the VFX used to credibly replicate a fully simulated version
of a Fresh Prince era Smith are thanklessly on point.
And Smith himself is quite good in a tricky dual role that could
have been disastrously mishandled by the wrong performance choices (he's
also matched nicely by Winstead, who's commendably never delegated to
damsel in distress mode).
It's just a shame, though, that the screenplay here is just on
assassin genre autopilot, leaving a potentially though provoking
sci-fi/thriller hybrid truly bereft of engaging thematic commentary.
GEMINI MAN is as high concept as they come, and the imagery and
action on display certainly deserve big screen consumption (which results
in my diplomatic 2.5 star rating: it deserves to be seen, albeit with some
obvious caveats and reservations).
Lee's film is an unqualified next-gen effects marvel that
legitimately astounds the senses, but its scripting lazily falls back on
old troupes and formulas.
It's exciting, if not a bit frightening, to consider what Lee could
do with these newfangled cinematic tools when given the right screenplay
vehicle that matches the filmmaker's technical innovation.