Around halfway through the new Ang Lee science fiction / action thriller Gemini Man, super-assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith) learns some details about Junior, his equally skilled super-assassin clone (also Smith, in digitally de-aged form). Junior was born around 1995, meaning he preceded Dolly the cloned sheep by a year or so. This is the perfect time period to pinpoint as the birth of Will Smith (or at least a Will Smith) because it corresponds almost exactly with Smith’s ascent into movie stardom: Bad Boys came out in 1995, followed by Independence Day in 1996. This is also the approximate time period that actually birthed Gemini Man, a script that’s been kicking around Hollywood for well over 20 years, at one point as a possible vehicle for late director Tony Scott.
It’s no surprise, then, that plenty of Gemini Man feels like a slightly musty cable-replay staple, with that 1990s Jerry Bruckheimer military jocularity and a loving reverence for its lead actor’s movie-star face. But it’s also directed by Ang Lee, still trying out the 120-frames-per-second cinematography that gives 3D extra clarity. Lee played with 3D in the Oscar-winning Life of Pi, then added a high frame rate for the interesting but decidedly not-Oscar-winning Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In Gemini Man, he tries to balance one more technological breakthrough with the digital de-aging process that lets Smith play opposite his younger self. Applying this cutting-edge tech and some of Lee’s earnest sensitivity to a junky popcorn film yields simultaneously futuristic and deeply, strangely retro results.
Gemini Man’s time-warped weirdness is appropriate to Will Smith’s blockbuster career; he makes a lot of high-tech science fiction movies, but he always seems to keep one foot in the past. Independence Day is as much a 1970s disaster-movie throwback as an alien invasion picture. I, Robot turned a seminal science fiction text into a generic cop action thriller. Even the snappy Men in Black is largely a streamlined Ghostbusters riff. On top of all that, Smith famously turned down the forward-thinking futurist classic The Matrix and wound up doing a different, vastly less iconic 1999 science fiction / action picture instead: Wild Wild West.
Twenty years ago, Wild Wild West was considered Smith’s first major financial and critical misfire. Though these days, a movie star getting his critically reviled project over $100 million single-handedly would seem pretty impressive. Gemini Man is a better movie in many ways, but it still has an odd kinship with Smith’s most notorious (though far from worst) big-budget endeavor. Wild Wild West certainly wasn’t an equivalent technological marvel in its day. Even in 1999, its green-screen effects were dodgy, and its massive computer-animated mechanical spider was unconvincing. From its clunky special effects to its steampunk-Western aesthetic to its TV source material to its employment of Kenneth Branagh as a legless Confederate general, almost nothing about Wild Wild West could be called influential. On the contrary, it felt like a sign that the 1990s’ favorite formulas — big movie stars and formerly popular brand names — were no longer luring in audiences. Compared to scrappier 1999 hits like The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, or American Pie, even the quirkier aspects of Wild Wild West felt bloated and outmoded.
Yet Wild Wild West’s magical thinking about the power of intellectual property is basically gospel in contemporary Hollywood. It’s part of what makes a movie like Gemini Man feel like more of an outlier in 2019. Even Smith, who for years logged non-franchise hits, has acquiesced to this reality. His biggest recent movies plug him into gigantic IP like DC Comics and Disney animation. Suicide Squad and Aladdin share a mishmash-y quality (and disreputable entertainment value) with Wild Wild West, which turned out to be prescient about the quantity-over-quality approach to simulated mirth.
Gemini Man isn’t a mishmash — tonally, it’s more Enemy of the State than Wild Wild West — but it shares a different kinship with Wild Wild West, enough to raise the question of whether it will also leave its own accidental mark on Smith’s career. Both Gemini Man and Wild Wild West are star vehicles made weirder by their deviation from Smith’s usual levels of assembly line polish. While Wild Wild West lacked the snazzy Men in Black sheen, the high frame rate in Gemini Man is like an overabundance of polish: the movie gleams with an uncanny, sometimes discomfiting vividness that recalls a live broadcast blown up to impossible sizes.
Ultra-high frame rates are a fascinating way to capture a big star, displaying so much facial detail that close-ups become unusually detailed and piercing. Lee understands this, and pays a lot of attention to his faces, both real and digital, often holding his close-ups a beat or two longer than standard cinematic language would dictate. The movie’s many settings often appear curiously de-populated, exacerbating Henry’s sense of loneliness, and emphasizing the way Smith’s faces become the vividly rendered suns the rest of the film orbits around.
Yet as prominent as Smith’s faces are, the film doesn’t play as a commentary on Smith’s classic persona. It would be easy enough to have Henry’s clone wisecrack his way through the action to signify carefree youth, but the clone, raised to be a super-soldier, has the social inexperience of a kid (his room is filled with model kits) and the creeping soul-sickness of a practiced killer. This is a compellingly odd use of digital de-aging technology, reproducing a younger Smith without many of his star-making trademarks.
Meanwhile, the older Smith subdues his charm without erasing it. Henry says he’s starting to have trouble looking at himself in the mirror, but Smith wears that self-doubt lightly, as if he’s wary of bothering anyone with his “ghosts,” as he calls them. He’s good in the film, in both roles, though the best moments are the action sequences. They merge Lee’s patient, painterly sensibilities with his technology’s hyper-real intensity. And projected at 120 fps, they look like nothing else at the movies right now.
The fact that the 120 fps project is only available in select cities is a sign that this technology, beloved by Ang Lee, Peter Jackson, and seemingly not many others, may not catch on. And the fact that de-aging technology is also used this fall in an awards-caliber movie like The Irishman indicates that Gemini Man won’t be remembered as a creative breakthrough on that front, either.
But the movie may have a life as a star study or even a blueprint for the ways that star power can be adjusted like a special effect. For de-aging effects to make sense at all, they must involve the deeply familiar faces of stars; otherwise, there’s no reason not to simply cast a younger actor. (As much as some of us may love, say, Scoot McNairy, it would not be particularly thrilling to see him realistically portray a 22-year-old.) Gemini Man has an old-school respect for Smith’s star power but a futuristic sense of how it might be modulated with cutting-edge technology. So much of the movie depends on quiet reminders of Smith’s charisma, rather than a full-on charm offensive.
The “young” Will Smith has an uncanny effect, but it would arguably be weirder to see a computer-generated version of his old shtick, performed by the actor in middle age. This kind of virtual agility, providing something familiar (young Will Smith) and something new (playing an uncharacteristically somber role) may become a necessity for stars hoping to stay in the blockbuster game, especially if they want to manage their own brands without submitting to superheroics or Disney remakes.
Whether Gemini Man’s most interesting aspects ultimately give it a better reputation than Wild Wild West, this is clearly not Will Smith’s second shot at The Matrix. But as celebrated as that movie still is (with a legacy sequel in the works), the sleek, mind-bending stylishness of The Matrix feels less like a dominant blockbuster aesthetic than the sweaty, overspending, intermittent charm of Wild Wild West. (For that matter, the latter beats that Smith-less fourth Men in Black movie any day.) Gemini Man may appear misbegotten and outmoded now. Just don’t be surprised if once the technology that went into it has had time to settle, it beats the odds and winds up looking like the future.