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Gemini Man review: Stunning visuals can’t mask a weak story

On paper, Gemini Man is as close to a sure thing as Hollywood gets. It stars Will Smith in not one but two roles: An aging assassin and the assassin’s young clone. It’s directed by Ang Lee, who’s won Best Director Oscars for both a visual effects extravaganza (Life of Pi) and an intimate character drama (Brokeback Mountain), and it’s produced by blockbuster king Jerry Bruckheimer. To top it all off, it features next-level visual effects and a groundbreaking 120 frames-per-second picture that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

In all of those aspects, Gemini Man lives up to the hype. It’s the film’s script that simply isn’t up to par. While the special effects and souped-up frame rate make Gemini Man a true spectacle, the film is plagued by poor dialogue, sloppy plotting, and thinly drawn supporting characters. Visually, it’s a blast. In every other aspect, it’s a missed opportunity.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In Gemini Man, Smith plays Henry Brogan, a 51-year-old government hitman who’s starting to feel his age. His reflexes are slowing down. After a lifetime of killing people, guilt is beginning to take its toll. He’s unhappy and regrets his life choices, so Henry does the only thing that he can: He retires and preps for a quiet life.

However, while investigating the circumstances surrounding his final mission, Henry runs afoul of GEMINI, a top-secret black ops unit led by Clay Varris (Clive Owen). In order to protect GEMINI’s secrets, Varris wants Henry dead, and he has the perfect weapon to take Henry out: Junior, a 23-year-old clone who has all of Henry’s natural gifts but none of his age-induced deficiencies or character flaws.

From there, the action unfolds on two fronts. Henry travels around the globe, trying to unravel the conspiracy surrounding GEMINI while keeping Junior at bay. Meanwhile, the young clone must reckon with the truth behind his creation, along with the slow realization that Varris isn’t the benevolent “father” that Junior thought he was.

Doubling up

Gemini Man‘s biggest hook is its visual effects, which allow current-era Will Smith to face off against his younger, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-era self. If that’s all you’re interested in, Gemini Man delivers. On screen, the young Will Smith is extremely convincing. You might question the logic behind Gemini Man‘s story, but you won’t doubt Junior’s humanity.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Once you know how Junior was made, he’s even more impressive. For Gemini Man, Weta Digital didn’t use the same digital de-aging process you’ve seen in the Marvel movies and The Irishman. In those films, a combination of makeup and post-production filters make real actors look younger. By contrast, Junior is a completely digital creation. He has more in common with Thanos, Gollum, or Planet of the Apes‘ Caesar than Captain Marvel‘s young Samuel L. Jackson.

None of Gemini Man‘s technical wizardry can save its lackluster script

CGI humans typically reside somewhere in the uncanny valley. Even when they’re well done, as they were in Rogue One, something usually looks off. That’s not the case with Junior. While you can see occasional flaws if you’re looking for them, the overall effect holds up quite well.

Will Smith, who provided the motion-capture performance to bring Junior to life, goes a long way toward selling the illusion. Smith is a talented actor and capable action star, of course, but he’s also been a celebrity since the ’80s. The audience knows what young Will Smith should look like. Thanks to all of that reference material, so did Weta’s technicians. As a result, it’s shocking when you see Junior and Henry standing side-by-side on screen — not because it’s bad, but because Junior looks so right.

Speed thrills

Less talked about, but arguably even more impressive, is Gemini Man‘s souped-up frame rate. While most movies are projected at 24 frames per second, director Ang Lee designed Gemini Man to be shown at 120 FPS and shot the film specifically for 3D. Due to technical limitations, not every theater can handle those specs, but even at a reduced 60 FPS the effect is stunning.

The average movie fan has, quite literally, never seen anything like it.

Gemini Man - Official Trailer 2 (2019) - Paramount Pictures

Because of the extra frames, Gemini Man‘s picture is incredibly sharp, with none of the motion blur you find in traditionally-shot films. The actors’ movements are fluid and crisp. Combined with the 3D, which adds depth but isn’t overly showy, it feels like Smith and his co-stars are standing inches away, performing Gemini Man live.

The higher frame rate adds immensely to the Gemini Man‘s action scenes, particularly one involving a fast-paced motorcycle chase. Director Ang Lee uses long, unbroken takes for most of the scene, letting the audience focus on the crazy stunts unfolding right in front of them. It’s like going on a theme park ride, where gunfire and explosions ring out all around you. The effect is truly thrilling.

Story trouble

Unfortunately, none of Gemini Man‘s technical wizardry can save its lackluster script, which was written by Darren Lemke (who sold the original Gemini Man screenplay in 1997), Captain Phillips‘ Billy Ray, and Game of Thrones co-showrunner David Benioff. Gemini Man‘s visuals might be innovative, but the story is as conventional as it gets. It lacks logic, depth, or any trace of subtlety, and it’s full of action movie cliches.

Early on, Henry tells his sidekick Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that he decided to retire after his guilt made it impossible to look at himself in the mirror. Later, after Henry comes face-to-face with his clone, Danny explicitly points out that Junior is like a mirror, too. All the moment is missing is for Smith to turn around, face the camera, and say, “Get it?”

Lacking any subtext, that metaphor is laid bare and dissected on screen, robbing it of its power.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The whole movie unfolds with a similar lack of subtlety. Gemini Man makes a big deal out of the fact that Henry is afraid of drowning, but never threatens the assassin with a watery death. One of Gemini Man‘s big mysteries — how do Junior and GEMINI always know where Henry is? — is explained via a piece of backstory that’s never been mentioned before and that never comes up again.

In fact, during quieter scenes, Gemini Man‘s ultra-realistic picture makes the script seem even worse. Gemini Man looks real, but its characters don’t speak or move like actual people, and at the high frame rate it’s obvious how staged everything is. You might be able to shrug off bland quips and cliched dialogue in a normal movie, but Gemini Man‘s high-fidelity visuals make the divide between fantasy and reality crystal clear. The film suffers as a result.

A group effort

Smith and his co-stars are clearly constrained by the material they’re given in Gemini Man, and it’s a shame. The aging, remorseful hitman might be an action movie cliche, but Smith gives Henry a quiet, methodical intensity that plays nicely off of Junior’s angst. He’s bigger as Junior, but that works to Gemini Man‘s favor. Henry and Junior have the same DNA, but they’re not the same people.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Henry’s sidekick Danny, fares best when it comes to making Gemini Man‘s clumsy dialogue sound natural, although she’s not able to work any miracles. B.D. Wong is utterly wasted as Henry’s former Marine buddy, but he manages to pop off a few memorable one-liners. Clay Varris is never more than a run-of-the-mill supervillain, but at least Clive Owen has a lot of fun chewing the scenery.

Gemini Man flirts with larger philosophical questions, but it never commits to answering them. How ethical is cloning for military purposes? If you could go back in time and save your younger self from making your own mistakes, would you? What would it be like to meet the person you’re destined to become, especially if you don’t like what you see? Gemini Man raises all of these points — and then promptly ignores them. The Matrix, this isn’t.

If you’re going to watch Gemini Man, viewing it in theaters will offer the most rewarding experience by far. The visual effects are impressive, and the high frame rate makes for an undeniably unique experience. Strip away Gemini Man‘s spectacle, though, and there’s not much left. Technology might’ve been able to bring Junior to life, but ultimately it can’t make you care.

Chris Gates
Christopher Gates lives in Los Angeles, CA and writes about movies, TV, video games, and other pop culture curiosities. In…
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