One of the many pleasures I enjoyed during my short and spectacularly unimpressive Hollywood career, was the opportunity to visit every major movie studio. Things may have changed in the decade since, but at the time, once you got through the gate with a pass, you were in and had access everywhere. No one bothered you. So after the meeting that brought me there, I would spend countless hours soaking these places in, which gave me the thrill of touring countless movie and TV sets at my leisure.
The most striking thing about walking through the set of a television show you’re familiar with, is how fake everything looks. In real life, these sets are artificial, flat, lacking in texture and the sense that real people exist in that world.
The same is true of most location shoots. A movie might be shooting in a real place, but when you are there it looks lifeless and dull. For instance, I’ve been to Monument Valley, and it is spectacular to look at, but it looks three times more spectacular in those John Ford movies.
This is the magic of film — and I mean film-film, the stock, the celluloid that captures the images. There is just something about film stock that transforms the everyday and/or counterfeit into something special.
Not to go on too long, but if you’re looking for an example… To try and save money, CBS forced Rod Serling to use video instead of film during the second season of his iconic Twilight Zone series. All things being the same, the difference between those episodes shot on video — including the classic Christmas episode “Night of the Meek” with Art Carney — and those captured on film, is all the difference; the difference between a school play and a professional production. In fact, the difference was so striking, CBS thankfully reversed its decision after six episodes.
Which brings me to my point…
Knowing all of this, why is director Ang Lee dedicated to making digital movies look like digital movies?
Lee actually thinks it’s silly to push digital technology toward looking more and more like film. Everyone else wants digital to look like film. Lee wants digital to look like digital, which looks fake, which is one of Gemini Man’s many, many problems.
I’ll get to the script in a bit, but Gemini Man is Lee’s second movie shot with the super high frame-rate of 120 frames per second (fps) in 3D (his first was the flop Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Most movies are shot at 24 fps and have been for a century. What the 120 fps accomplishes is CLARITY, but it is an artificial CLARITY, like looking through a window at the real world where everything is flat and empty, no matter how full the scenery might be.
Film stock (and the digital technology that apes film) adds depth, and because everything cannot be in focus, you know what to look at. Lee’s 120 fps puts EVERYTHING in focus, so you end up looking at the shingles on a roof when you should be looking at the assassin running across the roof.
Whereas film is immersive, Lee’s 120 fps makes you feel like you’re an outsider watching the action through a pane of glass. There’s a counterfeit emptiness to every shot, especially the daylight scenes, which are so brightly lit, so flat, so lacking in texture and shadow, you get the sense you’re in an operating room not a spy thriller.
And that’s a another problem, a problem that might explain why I just spent 500 words talking about the cinematography… Except for an early action scene involving a motorcycle chase — that feels more relentless than anything we’ve seen from the Terminator franchise in 15 years, Gemini Man does not thrill at all.
If you are determined to see a movie where a movie star fights himself, let me recommend 1991’s Double Impact; the tagline is “Double the Van Dammage!” and does not disappoint. Hey, it is what it aims to be, which cannot be said for Gemini Man.
The Great Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a 51-year-old American sniper and patriot who has 72 kills under his belt. Having done his duty for God and country, he’s ready to retire; and as soon as he explains why with this thudding dialogue — “Deep down, it’s like my soul is hurting. I just want some peace” — you know the movie is in trouble.
Naturally, retirement lasts less than 24 hours. A black box organization within his own wants him dead. The chase is on. The twist is that Henry is stalked by his own clone: a CGI’d version of Smith in his early 20s.
Lee is eager to delve into some big themes: The emotional toll of life as the world’s top assassin — even if you are killing terrorists to save lives; what it means to age out of your profession; what if you could guide your younger self to avoid the same mistakes, especially the self-loathing…?
Unfortunately, these interesting ideas are cut down in a hackneyed story loaded with clichés wrapped in the kind of uninspired plot you expect from a Steven Seagal direct-to-video entry.
Even Smith’s natural charisma has been fed through a de-flavorizer powered by tired tropes and banal dialogue.
As far as the CGI’d Fresh Prince, sometimes it works, sometimes you feel like you’re watching a video game version of Big Willie.
Clive Owen plays the villain, a demented patriot behind the cloning program. But he’s really just a third-rate Bond villain without charm or humanity … or a change of clothes. He’s either seething or plotting or manipulating. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.
And like most movies today, despite the presence of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Gemini Man is as sexless as Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. As if this movie isn’t frustrating enough, we don’t even get a decent look at her during a strip search. What the hell, Hollywood?
When you learn that Gemini Man cost $140 million, it only adds to the disappointment and begs a question… You have $140 million and you’re still doing product placement? Coca Cola! Budweiser! Tostitos! It’s everywhere! And at a 120 fps, it is especially glaring and shameless.
Not for a moment did I believe the relationships — not the father-son relationship between Clive Owen and the Fresh Prince, not the relationships between Henry and his eccentric war-cronies, not the relationship between Henry and Winstead’s character, and certainly not the ridiculous closing scene. No spark. No chemistry. No humanity.
Ang Lee is a great director but like another great director, Bob Zemeckis, his misguided love of technology is creating expensive visual gimmicks instead of cinema.
P.S. Since I was already at the movies, I decided to see Joker again. My opinion of it only rose the second time.