Brow Beat

Gemini Man’s High-Tech Heart

Ang Lee’s methods have radically changed. His subject hasn’t.

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Will Smith in Gemini Man, and Eric Bana in Hulk.
Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Will Smith in Gemini Man, and Eric Bana in Hulk. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Studios, Focus Features, Ben Rothstein/Paramount Pictures, and Sony Pictures Classics.

There’s a line in Ang Lee’s new sci-fi thriller, Gemini Man, that echoes, verbatim, words spoken in his previous films: “What do you know of my heart?” The phrase first occurs in Lee’s 1994 Taiwanese family drama, Eat Drink Man Woman, when one sister questions the emotional acuity of another. It is voiced again in Lee’s subsequent 1995 film, Sense and Sensibility, similarly in a confrontation between sisters. In Gemini Man, the line is exchanged not between siblings, but two versions of the same character—spoken by a digitally constituted younger clone of Will Smith named “Junior” to the actual manifestation of the 51-year-old actor. While Gemini Man—the latest iteration of Lee’s increased experimentation with cutting-edge filmmaking technology—appears to diverge from his early films about family matters, the recurrence of this line (spoken appropriately by the film’s technological clone) marks a thematic continuity between Lee’s early domestic dramas and his later sci-fi genre films.

Lee’s oeuvre contains multitudes, but his films can be recognized by their signature interest in matters of the heart. From his Taiwanese Father Knows Best trilogy and subsequent English-language debuts, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, to his current engagement with digital filmmaking, Lee’s canon continually asks: What do you know of my heart? While his films traverse different historical and ethnic traditions, this enduring question draws an emotional coherence across all of them. In fact, the director has been known to select projects based on what moves him—an impulse that has resulted in a filmography that ranges from representing Qing Dynasty China (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Edwardian England (Sense and Sensibility), Nixon-era America (The Ice Storm), the American West (Ride with the Devil, Brokeback Mountain), and the travels of an Indian boy lost at sea (Life of Pi). As Lee told producer Lindsay Doran when first approached to direct Sense and Sensibility, “I read the script and I understood it in my heart.” When examining why a Taiwanese-born straight man might make a film about gay cowboys, Lee explained: “I cried at the end of reading [Annie Proulx’s] short story … [it] really hit me and touched my heart. I felt compelled to make the movie because of that mystery.”

In Lee’s movies, internal feelings are rarely articulated outright but instead deftly reflected in Lee’s manipulation of lush cinematic space. Think of the treetop fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the enclosed landscapes of Brokeback Mountain. Think of the forlorn Pi, lost amid a seemingly endless sea. If Lee’s Oscar-winning oeuvre suggests that he is one of our great contemporary auteurs, his ongoing investment in filming scenes of sentiment suggests that he might also be our most middlebrow. Unlike other present-day Hollywood auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick, who seek more elevated highbrow (read: masculinist) subject matter, or filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, who lean into the lowbrow aesthetics of kitsch and camp, Lee is constantly working through the feminine middlebrow themes of melodrama and romance.

Lee’s lauded representation of melodramatic feelings makes his late-career turn to working with new filmmaking technologies and digital special effects somewhat unexpected. Especially since his 2003 Hulk—an early stab at the now-lucrative Marvel superhero film—tanked at the box office, it seems counterintuitive that the director would repeatedly toy with the expensive and aesthetically risky technologies of CGI, 3D, and the unprecedented rate of 120 frames per second. But even with Hulk, the commercial failure was intimately tied to Lee’s ongoing interest in representing emotional depth. As Lee reflects in a recent Guardian interview about Gemini Man: “The first Spider-Man came out while I was making Hulk. And here I was shooting psychodrama!” Lee’s Hulk remains anomalous among superhero films for how it portrayed its emotionally tortured superhero. (Lee added a history of family abuse to the character’s past.) Played by a somber and lonely Eric Bana, Lee’s Hulk shares more with Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai or Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar than he does with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.

Whereas Hulk’s focus on “shooting psychodrama” grated against the demands of the superhero genre, Life of Pi presented an opportunity for him to take on a story that has psychodrama at its core. Yann Martel’s novel tells of an orphaned Indian boy who slowly loses touch with reality while stranded on a boat with a tiger—and, appropriately, Lee’s adaptation works to visualize Pi’s internal experiences of hallucination and madness through 3D digital effects. The fact that the film’s (ostensibly real) tiger is itself a product of CGI exemplifies the foundational problem of representing the line between the real world and the products of our own imagination. Despite its massive budget and scale of production, Life of Pi is ultimately grounded in the simple plot of a boy prematurely forced to grow up away from family and home—a plot not so different from Lee’s earlier Taiwanese immigrant films.

Life of Pi won four Oscars, but Lee’s subsequent 2016 film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shot at 120 fps in 3D and at 4K resolution, was considered jarringly flashy, producing an image that, depending on whom you ask, is either dazzlingly lifelike or akin to a high-def soap opera. Lee’s decision to amp up the apparatus around the film, however, was not simply some visual gimmick. Similar to how Lee uses CGI to reflect Pi’s internal psychosis, the digital aesthetic of his following film sought to mimic Billy Lynn’s own traumatic war experience. Hoping to create a hyperreal experience of post-traumatic stress disorder through faster film frames and sharper images, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk seeks, like all of Lee’s prior films, to bring viewers closer to the hyper-personal stories of those on screen.

“The higher frame rate in 3D is a first-person experience,” explains Lee in the recent Guardian interview about Gemini Man. Lee’s technical explanation ultimately loses the interest of his interviewer, but the incentive for the explanation shouldn’t be ignored. Lee’s films repeatedly attempt to give viewers some kind of “first-person experience”—one that invites us into characters’ personal histories so that we might even begin to fathom their hearts. While Lee’s early domestic dramas might approach this problem using a more traditional film format—in 2D and at 24 fps—Lee’s current obsession with technological newness is not necessarily a departure from his earlier concerns.

As with Hulk, Life of Pi, and Billy Lynn, Lee’s latest film uses hypertechnical digital aesthetics to convey the fundamental contours of characters’ feelings. When Smith’s character—a government assassin tired from soulless killing—is sent on the run after his younger clone starts tracking him, his yearning for a different, freer kind of life is expressed through the impossibly gorgeous landscapes of every new place his escape takes him. Rather than have Smith’s character express dissatisfaction through dialogue, Lee instead uses the hyperreal and hypervivid possibilities of digital cinematography to paint a background environment that can speak to his protagonist’s longing heart. And as with Lee’s earlier films, Gemini Man continues to understand this heart in terms of family matters, as it has Smith play different versions of a character who is either orphaned, poorly parented, or even never parented at all. Despite being filled with technically dazzling action sequences and car chases between Smith and his various clones, what remains so compelling about these scenes is the heightened stakes of Smith’s battle against his own very self—externalized battles between different interior selves that wouldn’t be possible without the use of new digital filmmaking. If the film begins with one Smith concerned over the legitimacy of his life’s work, the rest of the film provides an opportunity for him to quite literally confront this anxiety in the physical embodiment of a younger self who threatens to repeat it.

Lee describes the intensity of Gemini Man’s visual effects as something that might even allow you to empathetically merge with the characters on screen: “You can feel the gut feeling of somebody’s temperature. You can feel them blush. You can see thoughts in their eyes.” Whether Lee’s new filmmaking techniques actually effect such intense forms of identification is another question, though one that might be punted given that very few theaters can actually screen the film in its ideal format. For while Lee seeks to bring viewers intimately close to those on screen, the true pathos of Gemini Man might in fact be that almost no one will experience the film as Lee meant it to be viewed. As with Hulk, what is particularly tragic about Gemini Man is the ongoing failure of Lee’s visual effects to attain their aesthetic aspirations. As the original Smith encounters an even younger and more militant clone of himself toward the end, there remains a sense that technological innovations might still stop short of capturing the intended heart of Lee’s films. Despite its use of ever-newer technology, Gemini Man remains a classic allegory of human versus machine—a battle that the film itself fights, even if it doesn’t necessarily win.