3/10 Gemini Man, and its key concept of using one actor in two roles as both the lead character and his clone, has been in development in some form since 1997, when writer Darren Lemke sold the concept to Disney. In that timespan, between Disney not really developing the project and anyone who did want to push forward also wanting to wait for technology to catch up, it’s been rewritten by six different writers — final screenplay credits went to Lemke, Billy Ray and David Benioff — had four different directors attached and 11 different actors attached to lead at different points, including Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Tom Cruise and Sean Connery. All this waiting and all this maneuvering was only for the technology to finally be employed in this uncurious, easily forgettable film.
In Gemini Man, accomplished assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith) retires from his shadowy government organization to spend more time with his remaining humanity. For reasons that either are never made clear or were buried in boring dialogue scenes I wasn’t really paying attention to, his superior, Clay Varris (Clive Owen) immediately sends a much younger assassin to kill him — Brogan’s genetic clone, known only as Junior (also Smith, created with a combination of motion capture and de-aging digital effects).
So, after 22 years spent waiting for the ability to do the same thing with computers that we’ve been doing with makeup for decades, the verdict on the effects is: sure. Junior’s lips look pretty weird in some shots, but the CGI, sure, it’s mostly fine. Whatever. Fuck you. It doesn’t matter. We lived through the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and we know that CGI doesn’t make movies. We’re living through the Star Wars sequel trilogy now, and we know that practical effects don’t make movies either.
The progression of visual effects in cinema ended in 1993 when Steven Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park. That was it. That was the Holy Grail, the light speed of movie magic such that, once we reached it, there was no realistic point in going further. Once we were able to do that, the question stopped being whether or not filmmakers could do something with special effects and started being whether or not they should.
It’s a cool gimmick, but there’s no reason to have Smith in both roles. Star Trek: Nemesis and Looper, two vastly superior films that were both conceived, filmed and released within Gemini Man’s eternal stint on the shelf, already explored essentially the same premise of a clone/time traveling double trying to kill his elder, both using pairs of actors who don’t even look alike — a young Tom Hardy simply shaved his head to emulate Patrick Stewart, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt wore prominent dentures in his role so that his bone structure would match Bruce Willis’.
Looper writer/director Rian Johnson used a shaped hunk of nylon, in addition to actual cinematic tools in the film’s blocking, editing, specific line choices and two wonderfully coordinated performances, to cast the actors that he wanted and help sell the illusion that they were the same person. Gemini Man uses one person to sell the ability of CGI to replicate that same illusion with the support of a much lesser film.
Adding even more unhelpful technical pretense was eventual director Ang Lee, who insisted on shooting the film in a framerate so high no theater in the country has the equipment to project it at the rate he wants it projected at. In my standard screening, several shots make it obvious this wasn’t meant to be projected onto a standard theater screen, and that’s not a good thing. Lee wants to distinguish himself as a filmmaker by pushing technological boundaries with his vision, but part of auteurship is actually getting your vision seen. None of this HFR/PLF shit matters for home media, and nothing else about Gemini Man is going to matter when it gets buried under Netflix’ algorithm because nobody likes it in any frame rate.
All of this effort was put into a movie that, after being rewritten into submission, feels like its script needed some more work. There’s a huge control of information problem. We spend several minutes with the villain explaining his plan to another villain coworker before the action starts, so the attempts on Brogan’s life never take viewers by surprise and his own investigations feel like backtracking. Many of the more compelling trailers posit Junior as the lead character, with the main emotional thrust of the movie being his sense of betrayal after learning not only that he is a clone, but he’s been sent to kill his genetic parent.
Instead, the story is from Brogan’s perspective, less about his relationship with his clones and more about his relationship with himself. It’s a decent place to take this metaphor, but when so much time was spent waiting to do the movie this specific way, it feels misguided not to at least try for a more metatextual story on the ethics of playing god the way both Varris and the filmmakers are trying to.
There’s very little flow to the dialogue scenes, which is another Lee hallmark. He seems to have wanted them to be extended, but they still feel awkward, driven by the pacing of the actors and not the editing.
This action movie has a weird and annoying habit of skipping over action scenes. Brogan is very smart in a way that allows him to avoid a lot of problems lesser operatives would have to shoot through, and they don’t find a good way of making his problem-solving method visual.
The action is great when it starts with a motorcycle chase in Columbia, but then we get to fist fights, things get strange. I like the choreography — there’s a lot of those half-parries that happen when two people are using the same fighting system — but they fall into the uncanny valley bringing it to life. Part of it could be the HFR eliminating motion blur where it’s needed the most, but given Junior’s acrobatic style of combat, I suspect there was some CGI at play as well.
Predictably with a director who’s much more concerned with his cameras than his actors, performances are uneven. If this is Clive Owen’s American accent, I’d hate to hear him trying to do English. Benedict Wong is having a wonderful time, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as always.
Smith is actively participating for once, and gives very different performances as Brogan and Junior. I think part of what makes Junior so strange is I don’t like this half of his performance at all. His body language is shy and awkward and his voice is high, almost pre-pubescent.
After almost a quarter century of developing technology that absolutely wasn’t needed to tell this story, Gemini Man’s sub-par story has it sitting at 25% on Rotten Tomatoes and, after poor word-of-mouth drove a disappointing third-place $20.6 million opening, projected to lose Paramount around $60 million, and that sounds about right. This was a $140 million shot in the wrong direction. When you’re trying to connect with viewers, what matters is what you put in front of them, not how you put it there.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.