A wildly idiosyncratic, flawed, weird film that deserves to be seen in theaters.
Ang Lee is no stranger when it comes to attempting to integrate his very individual artistic vision with experimental technology. His last two feature films both acted as cinematic vessels to argue for the capability of cutting edge tech within the theatrical experience — Life of Pi with its 3D and groundbreaking special effects work, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk with its jump from 24 to 120 frames-per-second and shot in 3D and 4K. The mixed reaction of the latter, with many writers finding the film’s story at odds with a cinematic approach that was largely deemed to be in over its head, has had seemingly little effect on the potential Lee sees in the format: Gemini Man was shot in the same way. Unfortunately, as was the case with Billy Lynn, his vision is a bit too pioneering for most movie theaters, as only a handful are actually able to show the film as its director intended, and I personally had to settle for 3D at 60fps and at the standard 2K.
I can only imagine what Lee’s pure vision would look like on the big screen, as this version is already deeply bizarre. The opening minutes of Gemini Man requires the audience to try and fully adjust to just how abnormal the film they’re about to experience is from the traditional viewing experience: the picture on screen does not look like what we generally recognize as regular digital film. It’s extra crisp and clean, excessively bright, the camera seems to glide in a way smoother than that of regular movies. Many have likened HFR films to watching a soap-opera or like watching the high-definition television demos at Best Buy — the image is crystal clear, but it isn’t cinematic. Cinema is more than just the cleanest, smoothest image you can conjure up. However, I think these comparisons sell the particular experience of Gemini Man far too short.
This film running at 60fps and in 3D made for one of the most bonkers, memorable viewing experiences I’ve had at the theater in quite some time. There were so many instances that I honestly couldn’t believe what I was looking at, whether it be from just how strongly the colors pop or how the heightened frame rate amplifies the 3D effect. The two effects working in tandem with one another results in some of the craziest images I’ve ever seen on a theater screen; from the camera gliding along in the air in extended shots following a motorbike chase (a sequence which has some of the most insane, hoot-and-holler-in-the-theater action beats of recent memory), to multiple underwater shots that take on a whole new dimension with the technology, to even a brief POV shot from behind a pair of infrared night-vision goggles. All of these things we’ve seen before, but nothing like how this format presents them.
In fact, the film more resembles a video game than a feature film in many instances. During the previously mentioned motorbike chase, we get multiple POV shots from the perspective of both of the drivers. There are several other POV shots looking down through the viewfinder of a gun. One sequence sees Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead crawling through a convenience store, avoiding turret fire as shot up debris flies at the screen. These sequences with HFR distinctly give the film the reminiscent feeling of a racing game or a first-person-shooter. While this may sound disadvantageous insofar as making an effective movie, it translates surprisingly well by being anchored by a plot that has so much to do with artificiality and a synthetic illusion of the real world.
The clone tracking down Henry Brogan (Smith) in the film isn’t some thoughtless robot purely fixated on killing. He’s an unnatural creation of a real human being; born as a baby and raised up to be as human as anybody else, but tricked and used by his government to be turned into a killing machine. This turns out not to be a film about a man outrunning an indestructible advanced piece of tech, but about a person who has to come to terms with the circumstances of his birth and that his whole reality is not what he knows it to be. The film is deeply concerned with the ideas of humanity and morality; giving someone a new life you wish you could have had for yourself. Lee shows himself to be deeply empathetic with what is ostensibly a globe-trotting action caper that I walked out of surprised by just now good-natured and sweet it is.
All this said this is not a perfect movie. The Smith double looks pretty convincing for the most part, though there are small instances where it looks downright cursed (and it’s at least slightly uncanny all throughout). All of the dialogue is rather stilted, and it doesn’t help that the broader plot here isn’t exactly as revolutionary as the tech that’s carrying it along. Taken without the gimmicks, it would probably feel right at home somewhere between the mid-90s to early-aughts era of earnestly corny popcorn action flicks, and it’s true that it may have lost a lot of goodwill from me if I had seen it in a traditional format. But that’s not the way Lee intended for it to be seen, and that’s not the way I want to judge it. I’ve seen some concerned that the advancements of this film act as some kind of grim harbinger for the future of cinema, but it’s hard for me to see it that way. Instead, Gemini Man is a wildly idiosyncratic, flawed, weird film that has the soul of a decent mid-budget action movie seen through the lens of a highly eccentric auteur.
Trace Sauveur has been a regular critic at Ready Steady Cut since March 2019.