Gemini Man might be a movie? It’s definitely an experiment. It’s about a covert government sniper named Henry Brogan who (heavy sigh) thinks retiring is a good idea, and gets into all manner of scrapes after he hits send on his resignation email. Brogan is played by Will Smith. He is soon being targeted by a younger sniper, who knows all of his moves, looks exactly like him, and is played by a CGI-de-aged Will Smith.
Ang Lee directed, using a very, very old script that was worked over by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke, and he shot it in digital, at the higher-than-normal frame rate of 120 fps, in 3D, on ARRI Alexa M cameras that were adapted for the purpose. The result is a simulacrum of a movie. An echo of a movie shouted into a well. A video game that occasionally reaches out an stabs you in the eye. Instead of spending your money on this you could just watch Looper and then all three John Wicks.
I will say in its favor, though, that the audience I saw it with seemed pretty invested in a certain third-act twist, so, YMMV. Also, this movie made me really really want a rocket launcher.
OK, full disclosure: I love action movies. Love them. Especially the over-the-top ’80s variety—give me a cop on the edge, or a normal guy trying to fight his way through hordes of terrorists, or Predator doing literally anything, and I will sit in front of a screen all damn day.
Brogan is a great assassin, so a lot of his sniper work was thrilling. He goes on the run (heavy sigh) with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Danny, and Benedict Wong’s Baron, to try to escape the head of the shadowy GEMINI organization, Clive Owen’s Varris. Varris, of course, has a trick up his sleeve in the form of the younger Will Smith, called Junior, who I will talk about a bit more in a spoilery paragraph marked further below.
And parts of this movie worked really well. Some of the action sequences were great. The 3D effects, once I got used to them, were really interesting. But because the script keeps just giving us character traits instead of characters, I couldn’t invest in the film in the way I needed to to follow its loopier second half. And you know how Polar Express was a terrifying journey into the Uncanny Valley? Now imagine if The Conductor was being chased by a version of himself that looked like Bosom Buddies-era Tom Hanks, who’s armed with a rocket launcher, and keeps saying things like “He knows all my moves!”
There’s also an even-more-shadowy subplot about super soldiers that doesn’t really get enough time to develop, but it does lead to some cool action sequences.
You know how John Wick reveals a covert underground of assassins and a hotel that acts as sacred ground and there are code words and like special assassin doubloons and its all impossibly glamorous? That’s kind of the case in Gemini Man, in that there’s a network of Marines who are now working in covert defense ops, and they all have special wrist tattoos, and they seem to be able to communicate telepathically or something—but their super secret underground is just house boats and apartments and like, a public spa? These three characters who are on the run from the government spend about ten minutes in a spa in Budapest, wearing fluffy cotton robes and drinking bloody marys on open terraces. I seriously think I have been more covert than that. And it becomes clear that none of them are that good at the covert underground network thing, because they keep being tracked by drones, and microchipped like pets at a shelter, and then surprised that their government is betraying them. One of the few genuinely fun scenes in the movie mocks this exact trope, as a Russian ops guy teases Brogan for feeling sad that the U.S. isn’t totally on the up-and-up with its super secret sniper corps.
It’s also just extraordinarily choppy and unrealistic, narratively speaking. I can handle two Will Smiths and super soldiers and covert ops, but these people travel from the state of Georgia to Colombia to Budapest and back to Georgia in about two days with no noticeable jet lag. And Benedict Wong flies them to all of these places without ever needing sleep? Come on. And somehow they’re able to do all this traveling ludicrously quickly, and even though they’re on the run there’s no sense they’re being detained at a border, or anything else that would ground the story and make it more tense.
Oh and never fear, the lone female member of this ragtag crew is told to shut up multiple times and has duct tape slapped over her mouth at one point. But she does at least get to be back up muscle occasionally.
There are two genuinely interesting questions buried in this heap of movie and I’m frankly pissed they don’t get more time. BUT they are spoilery! So skip down five paragraphs if you want to see this movie.
First: is it ever okay to clone someone in order to circumvent grief? Not in the individual and immediate sense of my cat is getting old and cloning her would give me another cat who is basically the same, but rather: if you could create a clone army to fight the U.S.’s wars, thus ensuring that no parent would ever have to attend a state funeral again, is that more ethical than recruiting and training people who are fully people to do it? Or are you creating monsters? Are the clones human? What is consciousness, and conscience, exactly? Does anyone really want to start kicking the word soul around, here?
The technical term for this dilemma, IIRC, is “tampering in god’s domain” which , if you’re going to do it, you should probably be very clear about why.
Second: Can a clone be its own person? In Gemini Man, we learn that Junior is a clone of Brogan, whom Varris engineered in a lab, basically, and then had implanted in a surrogate mother. (We never meet the surrogate.) Junior is a 100% copy of Henry Brogan. Varris claims to love Junior, and considers him a son, but can he truly love a person who has been engineered and grown in a lab, and who now looks, speaks, and acts exactly like another person, whom Varris does not seem to even particularly like? And can Junior possibly love him back? And yes, of course people are born in many different ways, and all of them are valid—I’m certainly not slamming surrogacy or IVF or anything here—but this isn’t a child in the same way. Junior is an identical match to another whole-ass person, who’s off living a different life and knows nothing about him. So how does this affect Varris’ sense of fatherhood? How does it affect Junior’s sense of self, to learn that he’s a copy of another person?
The movie nods at these questions but never really grapples with them. We never really know how Henry feels about having his DNA stolen. More time is spent on Danny apologizing for taking his blood to the lab than is spent on the idea that Varris grew a replacement Henry without telling anyone. Also, how the hell did Varris keep the kid a secret for 23 years??? I want that movie. That must have been actual covert shit.
The film also posits an interesting belief in genetics? Brogan assumes that Junior will treat Danny respectfully because that’s what he would do. There is no question that maybe nurture has gotten the better of nature, and maybe Junior has taken after Varris in personality.
OK, spoilers over!
There are a couple of great fights between Will Smith and Willennial Smith (OK, fine, he’s 23, so he’s Gen Z or whatever—but it’s too goddamn good a nickname. Just let me have this.) The sniping is tense and thrilling. There’s also a point where the two Wills fight each other with motorcycles and on one level it’s great, because I was raised on Jackie Chan and I love it when people in action movies use what they have on hand to fight, but again, the movie is so uncanny and weightless because of the CGI that all I could think of was how much better an ’80s Jackie Chan movie would handle the sequence. And I don’t just mean the de-aging software—the bikes seemed weightless. The innocent bystanders never seemed fully real, they seem like the background characters in Grand Theft Auto, waving their hands jerkily each time an act of violence startled them. (In fact my lingering emotion after the film was a desperate desire to fire up GTA and hijack a bike. Is there a better feeling than careening around Liberty City on a Hellfury?) And this isn’t to just slam the technology. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of the de-aging effect, and once I got used to the extreme 3D of the film, it really did create a unique movie-going experience. But I just kept remembering the Martin Scorsese tweetstorm from last week, when he said Marvel films are a theme park rather than cinema. Is Gemini Man cinema?
I mean, it’s not a good movie. But is it cinema? Or is it some other hybrid thing, that will become one option among many at a movie theater, more like an interactive ride than a film? Or…will this become the new normal? Are we, at last, entering the Willennium?
If that’s the case I may need to stock up on Criterion Collection Blu-rays and stay the heck home.