Final numbers are still rolling in, but it seems safe to say that Gemini Man is not the hit anyone involved might have hoped it would be. Ang Lee’s science fiction action movie, starring Will Smith as both an aging assassin and his younger, stronger, faster clone, landed in third place at the box office this weekend (it got beat by both returning champ Joker and a new animated version of The Addams Family), and the film’s roughly $20 million domestic debut is an especially rough start for a movie that cost nearly seven times that before advertising. For the most part, the reviews have been even more dire, with plenty of critics denouncing a dopey plot and mediocre supporting performances, when not just concluding that it’s a glorified tech demo—a chance for its director to play around with evolving digital effects and shoot in a high frame rate, even though most theaters aren’t properly equipped to exhibit the film in the proper format.
To hear some tell it, Gemini Man is one of the big cinematic fiascos of the year, and maybe of Smith’s whole career. But I can’t bring myself to hate it, not really. For one, I agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who wrote the mixed A.V. Club review, that the action scenes are reasonably thrilling in their fluidity and clarity. But there’s also an irresistible meta dimension at play here. Gemini Man is the kind of quintessential star-text blockbuster whose very premise functions as a commentary on the career of its headliner. After all, who is Henry Brogan, famously reliable mercenary who’s started to lose his touch, but a genre-movie proxy for the man playing him, a megawatt performer whose drawing power isn’t quite what it used to be? And when Brogan faces off against a dead ringer—a facsimile of the killer he used to be—what are we really seeing but a middle-aged Will Smith confront his own movie-star legacy, his own past as a more “perfect” physical specimen and marquee attraction?
It’s a lot like that scene in Terminator Genisys where Arnold whales on Arnold, only more sentimental and affecting, and expanded to feature length. But the metaphor runs deeper than a mere mirror-image title fight, a game of reconciling the Will Smith of now with the Will Smith of 25 years ago. Accidentally or not, Gemini Man’s cloning-gone-wrong plot also doubles—pun neither intended nor avoided—as a cautionary tale about the folly of trying to resurrect that younger Will Smith in the first place. Which is to say that Ang Lee, who’s improbably positioned himself next to James Cameron on the vanguard of motion-picture wizardry, has used de-aging technology to issue a (debatably intentional) critique of de-aging technology.
It’s certainly a timely topic in 2019, a year haunted by the digital phantoms of movie stars as they once looked. Back in March, Marvel refined its own advances in post-production nip-tucks to allow the septuagenarian Samuel L. Jackson to play a fortysomething Nick Fury. And later this autumn, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will confront audiences with magically youthful versions of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Gemini Man takes a different tact than those movies, which enlisted artists from, respectively, Lola VFX and Industrial Light & Magic to paint over the wizened faces of over-70 actors, smoothing out time’s wrinkling influence. Lee, working with Peter Jackson’s effects house Weta, alternatively uses the latest advances in motion-capture technology to create an entirely CGI version of Smith. In practice if not process, it’s closer to the cameo appearance by a ’70s-era Carrie Fisher in Rogue One or Blade Runner 2049’s eerie mirage vision of the aptly named Sean Young. Except here, the imposter is on screen for long stretches of the running time, not just a few shots.
Whichever way the illusion is accomplished, it never looks quite real or right. Jackson’s digitally abetted Dorian Gray routine in Captain Marvel is probably the most convincing of this year’s crop—if Marvel finally breaks its no-win streak in the Oscars visual-effects race, Nick Fury will be the reason—and even he doesn’t exactly walk or run like a man in his 40s. Nor does a hobbling De Niro in The Irishman, to say nothing of the occasional waxiness of his altered features. Gemini Man gets around the old-man-with-a-baby-face problem by making an entire body out of 1s and 0s, but the tradeoff is that his motion often looks unnatural, too fast or inhumanly smooth. (However far CGI has come over several decades, it still struggles to replicate the way living things move.) “Junior,” the test-tube version of Smith we meet in the film, is sometimes a remarkable effect—there are moments when you might swear you’re seeing unused footage from Bad Boys or Independence Day spliced into the picture, Robert Zemeckis-style. Other times, Junior looks shockingly shoddy; a late scene of the character walking around in broad daylight elicited hails of unintended laughter at last week’s advance screening in Chicago.
“You get used to it,” is the backhanded compliment I often find myself reaching for in the face of these imperfect replicants, whose presence I accept only after a few minutes of screen time, my eyes catching up with my mind’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It’s possible the technology just isn’t there yet—that even in 2019, filmmakers are still overreaching in their attempts to turn back the clock. Then again, maybe it’s less about how credible the effect is and more about the losing battle it’s fighting against our own memories of Hollywood royalty. One reason, perhaps, that young Nick Fury is the most believable of this year’s Benjamin Buttons is that Jackson has aged very well—he doesn’t look that radically different at 70 than he did at 46. De Niro, by contrast, doesn’t much resemble the man he was in his 30s. And when we see an unreal facsimile of him, we can’t help but compare it to the real young actor we saw in, say, The Godfather Part II. The high-tech trick just can’t compete with the images those past performances have imprinted on the moviegoer consciousness.
It’s easier to roll with the uncanny imperfection of de-aging effects if you find a way to think of them as intentionally uncanny and imperfect. That’s one rationalization for the way De Niro looks and walks in The Irishman: Since the film’s flashbacks are framed as memories, it’s possible to think of these scenes as subjectively off—a frail old man trying and failing to recall what he was like as a young man. Likewise, Gemini Man presents Junior as something fundamentally unnatural: a weapon of science, a ghost created in a lab, a mistake. He doesn’t move like the real Will Smith because he isn’t the real Will Smith. And maybe we’re supposed to be creeped out by the cognitive dissonance—by the simultaneous recognition of his resemblance to a young Smith and knowledge that he isn’t what he resembles. It might be too charitable to suggest that Lee and his team wanted us to be distracted by the effect. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work as a distancing device in the context of the movie.
It makes one wonder if “you get used to it” will eventually become true in a macro as well as a micro sense. Lee has argued that everyone’s eyes would, through habit and exposure, adjust to 120 fps—that we’d come to appreciate the greater brightness and vividness of the format, accepting the look of it the same way we eventually accepted digital as an alternative to celluloid. Having seen the first Hobbit film in a high frame rate, and having found almost every second of it almost unwatchably synthetic, I have my doubts. But maybe that principle will apply to de-aging technology. Will it eventually become just another commonplace tool to make movie stars look perpetually youthful and beautiful? Will elderly actors playing characters half their age become a rule, not an exception? And will female movie stars be afforded this same digital second life, as a corrective to the industry’s habit of marginalizing them once they’ve passed a certain age of supposed desirability?
These questions float to the surface of Gemini Man’s fountain of youth, raised but unanswered. It’s difficult not to read the film’s story, about a villain trying to replicate an exceptional asset through mad science, as a condemnation of the very technology it employs, especially given the case it makes for Smith the aging actor, leaning a little more than usual into midlife melancholy. The one-time king of summer often still plays action heroes, and as recently as four years ago was romantically paired with a 25-year-old Margot Robbie. But in Gemini Man, he says aloud that he’s 51—the age of the character, but also his actual age. And the film underlines his limitations as a middle-aged man, finding poignancy in his acknowledgement of them, and in his weariness. In a sense, it makes a case for Smith acting his age, at least relatively speaking. (Yes, he’s still a super assassin, but a slower and less brash one, and his partnership with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as the federal agent he’s on the lam with, never quite evolves into an older-younger romance.) Smith’s gravitas in the role is only further emphasized when placed next to a superficial, at times literally weightless imposter, vaguely conjuring the image of the star he used to be but never evoking the real soul or swagger of those performances.
In other words, Gemini Man offers a clear choice between Will Smith as he is—older, maybe wiser, certainly not the wisecracking bolt of comic energy he was in his youth—and an artificial approximation of the “original” Will Smith. The unnerving unreality of Junior, a special effect that never quite acquires a soul, makes that choice for the audience; it implies that no matter how good the technology gets, there’s no way to really bottle or resurrect the lightning charisma of a star in their prime. That makes the film a kindred spirit of perhaps the ultimate special effects movie, Jurassic Park, which can also be read as a prescient warning about the technology it employs—a cautionary tale of hubris, scientific and cinematic. Speaking of ’90s blockbusters, maybe it’s apropos that Gemini Man is underperforming, because its failure reinforces the film’s philosophy, accidental or not. Maybe trying to recreate a Will Smith action vehicle from that era is as futile as trying to recreate Will Smith.