“It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic,” Clay Verris (Clive Owen) fumes in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, and it’s almost a dare to make a movie this bad, and put a line like that in it, and not expect to have it quoted back to you. Because Gemini Man is a monumentally stupid movie that is also burdened with a technical innovation that functions, essentially, as an alienation device. In most good or even passable movies, there’s at least one moment when something clicks in your brain, and you’re no longer “watching a movie,” but lost in the story. What Gemini Man supposes is, what if we made a movie that made it physically and psychologically impossible for that moment to ever happen?
That innovation is HFR – High Frame Rate, which, put as simply as possible, vastly increases the amount of information coming into your eye from the screen at any given moment. For most of the time movies have existed, they were shot at 24 frames per second (fps); much of television and video was shot at 30 fps, which is why television always looked a little different from movies. Then, in the late ‘90s, we finally saw the advent of 24 fps video, which allowed the flexibility and digital nativity of video but looked like film, and frankly, folks, that’s where the innovation should have ended.
Instead, Peter Jackson and James Cameron and Ang Lee have inexplicably embraced HFR technology, shooting on 4K video at a mind-boggling 120 fps, and in 3D to boot. The net result in Gemini Man, as in Lee’s earlier Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is something akin watching a giant television with the motion smoothing turned on. We’ve talked ad nauseam about the “uncanny valley” in digital filmmaking, that weird thing in, for example, Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture movies where the look and sound of the characters seem realistic, but something’s just a little off. What happens in these HFR movies is more like a reality horseshoe; because the image is so clear, and the motion is so smooth, and everything is so big, it becomes so real that it looks fake.
And thus, with all of the seams showing that our eyes and brains usually overlook when we’re watching a movie that looks like movies are supposed to look, we’re left with a heightened awareness of the artifice. Everything in this professionally made, expensively produced motion picture seems poorly and unconvincingly staged, and it becomes a question not of reality, but association; there’s a very specific clumsiness to low-budget shot-on-video movies, an amateurism one doesn’t expect to see in a studio picture from an Oscar-winning director and a giant movie star. But here we are.
And who knows, perhaps some specific kind of story – about alternate realities, maybe? – could benefit from this unsettling hyper-reality. But Gemini Man is just a big, dumb action flick, full of dialogue like “I will not let you take out a hit on American soil,” so the many clichés of the script (the spy talk, the pseudo-science, the little wisecracks) ring even more false. It just feels like they’re all play-acting, and badly.
Unsurprisingly, the clarity of the image and proximity of the camera make most of the performances, even from this talented cast, seem wildly overwrought. I’ve heard it said that the difference between acting on stage and acting on film is like the difference between looking at an object through a telescope and looking at it through a microscope; here, it’s like someone put a magnifying glass under the microscope. This camera picks up every potential false note, every pat gesture, every half-hearted emotion, every throwaway line reading. And the crystal clarity of the image really doesn’t do Lee and his team any favors when Smith’s stuntman takes over, or when the computer-generated flames come into play, or when they break out the wound make-up, or when they make with the video-game zooms.
It should be noted that only a handful of screens around the country will get the full 2K/3D/120 fps experience. And when everyone else sees it looking like a regular movie, maybe it will play like one. (I’m not sitting through it again to find out.) I’m keenly aware that anyone pooh-poohing an innovative new technology – especially one that’s being used by Mr. Cameron for the surely inescapable (once they finally arrive) Avatar sequels – inevitably sounds like those clueless old farts they trot out in the chapter of the film history books about the transition from silent movies to talkies. But the difference is that when The Jazz Singer hit screens, narrative filmmaking was barely a quarter-century old. We’ve been seeing movies at 24 fps for far, far longer.
At this point, what our eyes see when we watch images on a screen is a question not of reality, but of association, and perhaps what’s most impressive about Gemini Man is how it performs the magic trick of taking $138 million and turning it into a low-budget made-for-Cinemax thriller. The lighting is flat and ugly (half the picture seems to take place in the goddamn dark), the score sounds like it was composed in GarageBand, and most of the time, everyone looks deeply uncomfortable. I’m not sure why a filmmaker as talented as Ang Lee has hitched himself to this technology, but it’s a dud. And the thought of him wasting a decade of his career on this nonsense, the way Zemeckis did on his mo-cap movies, is crushing.
Credit where due: the computer-aided young Will Smith is totally, eerily convincing. And the seams don’t show, even for a second, in the scenes he shares with himself (especially, and trickily, their fight scenes). I do wonder what they could’ve done with those advances in technology, were they deployed in the service of, y’know, a real movie. Gemini Man is not that. It’s a sizzle reel for a bad idea.
“Gemini Man” is out Friday.