Movies like Gemini Man are usually ideal airplane viewing. Take a formulaic plot about spies and cloning, then add dialogue so predictable that getting interrupted by pilots’ announcements and turbulence and your seatmate’s need to get up and use the bathroom won’t detract from the experience. Pad it out with some lovable movie stars (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, and not one but two versions of Will Smith) and big fight scenes (in this case, something akin to pistol-whipping with a motorcycle), and bam, you’ve got a decent way to spend half your flight to Thanksgiving.
Gemini Man, directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee, fulfills every one of these requirements. He even makes sure not to trouble the viewer with any pesky existential questions after, either — surprising, since the film is ostensibly about what makes us human. But Gemini Man is a weirdly inhuman movie (more on that in a moment), and it would make for a terrible airplane watch because it is not a movie about its story or even its action sequences. Since the movie’s whole reason for being is technical wizardry, if you were watching on the back of an airplane seat you’d just be left with a bafflingly emaciated movie about nothing. Gemini Man is a demo reel for some fancy new movie technology, an EPCOT attraction dressed up as an action flick.
Or is it just an empty-headed lights show? I’m genuinely not sure how best to think about this confounding, deeply unsatisfying movie. It’s either a crashingly dull facsimile of a shit-blows-up thriller, or maybe, just maybe, a wildly subversive comment on Hollywood’s looming dark future — a slick bit of meta-commentary on itself, Black Mirror-style.
I cannot say I enjoyed any of it, whatever this movie may be. And I can’t deny I left the theater a little scared.
On one level, Gemini Man is an absolutely by-the-numbers vehicle for an action star, Will Smith, who at 51 is still ripped and very capable of running around shooting things. (The screenplay is by a real grab-bag of writers, including Hunger Games’s Billy Ray, Shazam!’s Darren Lemkey, and Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff.) It’s such a Will Smith vehicle that there’s more than one of him; the plot, which offers zero surprises whatsoever, involves Smith as elite agent Henry Brogan trying very hard to retire from his job killing people but discovers he’s being chased by a 23-year-old version of himself. Younger Will Smith was sent to kill older Will Smith by Clay Verris (Clive Owen), who operates a shadowy private military organization called Gemini. You know. Like twins.
Probably you’re wondering now how there’s a younger Will Smith in the movie — or maybe you aren’t! After all, de-aging effects are part of a big prestigious drama this year (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman). Gemini Man, though, isn’t using de-aging, which uses special effects to smooth out the signs of aging on an actor; the best way to describe the movie’s process is that the filmmakers created a digital mask of Will Smith at 23, sometimes using old footage of Smith, and then stretched it over the face and body of current Will Smith.
The result is very slightly uncanny, but on the whole pretty convincing — especially since we’re used to seeing 23-year-old Will Smith. (Having hours and hours and hours of footage of Smith at that age likely helped a lot.) For most of the movie, Henry and fellow agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are running around the globe, aided by a pilot named Baron (a charming Benedict Wong), while pursued by Henry’s doppelgänger, who goes by the unimaginative moniker of “Junior.” There are fights and chases and lots of explosions. You can see the twists coming from 100 miles away. It’s fine.
The Smith-mask isn’t the only technical wizardry going on in the movie (not surprising for Lee, who has messed with technical advances in films like 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). It’s also shot in 120 frames per second (in contrast to the traditional 24 frames per second) and in very high-definition 4K 3D — and, as it turns out, there isn’t a single theater in America that can actually play the movie in that format. Fourteen theaters in the US will play the film in 120 fps 2K 3D, which is the closest you’ll be able to get to Lee’s intended viewing experience.
But that’s plenty to get the gist. Gemini Man is designed to look hyper-realistic and super detailed, like you’re right there sitting in the camera, and, I guess, so that the double-Smith effect and the extreme action sequences seem lifelike.
All I can do is speak for myself and say that I had to watch the action sequences by looking away, then glancing up every few seconds because I felt ill almost instantly. If you, too, are prone to motion sickness, beware. Also bright flashes — several explosions seem constructed to sear the retinas in a manner like unto a real fiery inferno — and loud noises and, well, basically anything you would go to a theme park attraction to experience are used with abandon.
Cinema, am I right?
Actually, cinema is what I’m worried about after watching this movie. There’s a way to read Gemini Man — a stretch, to be sure, but one that the text bears out — as a movie about the dismal future of movie-making, wrapped up in the things that will give rise to that future.
Spoilers ahead to explain.
One of the least credible things about Gemini Man is its insistence that its characters can’t figure out that Will Smith’s identical younger self is his clone. I don’t know; I guess I just figure that at this point, super-charged fighters with ties to shadowy paramilitary organizations and/or elite defense agencies probably wouldn’t find cloning all that surprising.
Anyhow. Junior is obviously Henry’s clone, made by Clay Verris. The world needs a “new breed of soldier,” apparently, because the problem with guys like Henry is they’ll do anything you tell them when they’re young, but when they get older, they “grow a conscience” and stop following orders. So Verris and his cronies decide they’ll clone Henry but “edit out” things like empathy and the ability to feel any pain. Thus, they’ll create sub-human super-soldiers who can do all the fighting for the world without endangering any actual humans.
Ignore that we’ve seen this idea like a million times in sci-fi and action movies before. What’s so weird about this in Gemini Man is that the movie feels like a proof of concept for something that’s been floated before (most notably in the bizarre 2014 film The Congress): the inevitability that someday, when the technology is good enough, likenesses of actors will replace the actors themselves. “Performances” in films will come from fully animated but hyper-realistic versions of beloved actors, created in a computer, with licensing fees paid to the original human. Given enough time, the simulacrum will overcome the reality, negating the need for originals at all.
There’s a logic at play in this way of thinking. Actors are, well, people. They have quirks. They get sick or pierced or tattooed. They can become difficult to manage or they walk off set or they get busy with one project and can’t shoot another. They don’t want to do nude scenes or they need to be paid extra for working in dangerous locations; their stunt doubles are talented, but there are things even they can’t do. Also, they all want to be paid.
So just imagine the options if you could perfectly recreate any actor — and the potential savings (and earning potential) for a movie studio that owns the rights to, say, the perfect replica of Keanu Reeves or Angelina Jolie or Will Smith, all while sharing licensing with the actor’s estate. You might doubt it will ever be done; I would put money on it happening in the next decade, unless somehow the industry unions intervene. It’s already happened before, with actors like the late Peter Cushing recreated for Rogue One. And if you can recreate actors, you can create them, too, replacing the need to hire people to play all of those parts where nobody knows the actor’s name anyhow.
I have other problems with Gemini Man, too — it looks terrible, like motion smoothing on a massive screen; with everything in focus in the frame, it’s hard to tell what to look at. In a way, it’s like the artistry has been ripped out of the visual essence of cinema. Hopefully, should this high-frame-rate filmmaking style take over blockbuster cinema, someone will figure out how to wrangle it into something more pleasing or else we’ll all just get used to it, as we always have; movies, after all, have always been driven by changes in technology.
But the notion of slowly pushing the need for actors out of the filmmaking process makes me worry about what else we’ll try to get rid of. Composers? Cinematographers? Writers and directors? Right now, technology can’t convincingly ape the human touch. But if we get used to generic, shallow, vapid, derivative storytelling and flat-looking images, and simply show up at the movies to be made to feel as if we’re in the middle of an explosion, then that’s eventually what the industry will turn out. (And frankly, the dialogue in Gemini Man might have been written by an AI, one that can simulate the delivery but not the content of a joke.)
Interestingly, there’s a notion in Gemini Man that these clone assassins are soulless and thus it doesn’t matter if they die. They are inhuman. And that’s a notion we’re supposed to at least feel weird enough about to cheer when Verris bites the dust; it’s implied that creating subhuman clones of real humans is a step on the path to becoming less than human ourselves.
In fact, the movie seems somewhat self-aware about the fact that it’s fighting over where the essence of humanity’s future lies. In the movie’s last scene, Henry, Junior, and Danny are fighting over what Junior’s college major will be. Engineering? Computer science? No, Danny says, you need to study the humanities! You need to connect to the past to flourish in the future. The scene feels weirdly tacked on, but also like a little manifesto for the movie as a whole.
The movie concludes with Junior saying he’s going to make his own choices, and so I guess maybe that’s what Hollywood will do, too. But it sure is weird to see the technique and the critique of the technique in the same movie and wonder if it knows what it’s doing at all. After all, seeing your doppelgänger, your exact double, is traditionally a harbinger of death. So if Gemini Man is the future of big-budget filmmaking, I hope someone in Hollywood is getting worried.
Gemini Man opens in theaters on October 10.