If you could meet your younger self, what would you warn them not to do? And if your older self appeared with a warning for you, would you even listen to them? These are the questions at the heart of Gemini Man, and while they’ve often been framed through the lens of time travel, Ang Lee’s movie finds a different way to pose them: not as a confrontation between a future self and a past self but between a middle-aged man, full of regrets and doubt, and a genetic duplicate half his age. Both Henry Brogan, a government assassin who’s nearing the end of his usefulness, and Junior, the clone secretly groomed to replace him, are played by Will Smith—the one as he looks now, with lightly creased face and flecks of white at the temples, the other as he looked the first time he came onto the nation’s screens in the early 1990s. (The twentysomething version wasn’t so much de-aged, like the actors in some recent Marvel movies and in The Irishman, as he was digitally Frankensteined together from old movies, from his toes up to his big ears.) The meetings between them—Gemini Man’s raison d’être, although they occupy only a small portion of its running time—are uncanny but not in the sense that Junior feels less than human. Perhaps he’s a tad unformed, but who isn’t in their early 20s? What we see is Smith coming literally face to face with himself, trying to drive home the idea that there’s more to life than blowing things up.
For Lee, Gemini Man’s subtext is just below the surface. He’s said that the movie would only work with a leading man in his 50s who’d been an action star in his youth and that only two working actors qualified: Smith and Tom Cruise. (“Tom,” Lee told the Guardian, “was busy.”) And it’s brought home by the technology Lee used to make it, not just the digital animation used to re-create Smith’s youthful face but the high-frame-rate 3D in which the movie was shot. Although the version I saw wasn’t quite optimal—it turns out no commercial theater in the United States is capable of projecting the movie at the preferred 120 frames per second, in 3D, and at 4K resolution—it was close enough to get a sense of what has drawn Lee to devote himself to the technology, and to judge it a failure.
High-frame-rate 3D produces an image of unparalleled clarity, and it also illustrates why clarity, no matter what a Best Buy salesperson might tell you, is not an end in itself. Watching Will Smith in HFR is just that—watching Will Smith, not whatever character he happens to be playing. It’s like being on the set of a movie rather than watching one, a making-of video with no final product to point to. There’s a story to follow, involving the Defense Intelligence Agency and Clay Verris (Clive Owen), a military contractor gone bad, but it’s often less engaging than the lines in the corner of an actor’s mouth or even the water droplets on a can of soda. If the surrounding environment were the movie’s actual subject—as it is in, for example, Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary Aquarela, which captures the crumbling of Arctic ice shelves at a terrifyingly lucid 96 frames a second—then Gemini Man would work like gangbusters. But the screenplay, by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke, can’t stand that level of scrutiny, and the closer we get to the actors mouthing their clunky, mock-allegorical dialogue, the phonier they seem. (At 24 frames a second, you might buy Clive Owen, who’s 55, holding his own in a fight with 23-year-old Will Smith. At 120, it’s just ridiculous.)
Smith, to his credit, comes closest to selling the screenplay’s grandiose nonsense—that is, after all, a movie star’s job, and the movie works best, to the extent it works at all, as a reflection on his 30-year career. If you take its true subject as the plight of the aging action star, it’s OK that during a motorcycle chase through the streets of Colombia, you can tell Smith has been replaced by his stunt double, just another replacement in a movie premised on them. (That sequence is one of the few times the HFR produces a result that is genuinely thrilling, rather than mildly nifty.) The confrontation between an authentic self and a synthetic double does seem tailor-made for Tom Cruise, but Smith has embraced aging in a way Cruise never has, to say nothing of on-screen fatherhood. Part of what’s made Henry who he is—a perennially unattached (and possibly virginal) killer who’s only happy in the seconds before he pulls the trigger—is his father’s absence, which Clay presumed to remedy by raising Junior himself. But Henry understands Junior’s world in a way Clay never will, if he can only get Junior to stop trying to kill him long enough to pass on that wisdom.
Lee is convinced that high-frame-rate 3D is the future of filmmaking, and he’s still hoping to make another movie, this one about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in the format. But whether or not the technology ends up being embraced, it seems doubtful that Gemini Man—or its predecessor, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—will survive the transition. At the turn of the 21st century, Robert Zemeckis, then at the peak of his craft, devoted a decade to making nearly unwatchable motion-capture movies, and Lee seems at risk of throwing away a similarly generous portion of his even greater abilities. If only he could go back in time and warn himself.