Ang Lee’s increasing preoccupation with digital cinema effects can be traced to 2003’s Hulk, the first time one of his films featured a main character generated by a computer. In 2012 Life of Pi saw Lee wading further into digital waters, showcasing computerized sets and hyperrealistic animal characters. And in 2016 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, filmed in a superfast 120 frames-per-second that very few theaters in the U.S. were actually equipped to project, managed to exude a digital sheen despite the apparent novelty of normal human characters doing non-superpowered things. With Gemini Man, Lee’s big-budget Will Smith actioner, the director tries a new digital toy: a screenplay generated entirely by a computer.
It certainly feels like that, anyway. The real gimmick of Gemini Man, of course, is a digitally de-aged Smith playing a younger clone of himself (Fresh Prints of Bel-Air). The Real Human Smith is Henry, the world’s best assassin, who simply wants to retire in peace. But the digitized “Junior” Smith is sent to kill the O.G. version, resulting in a globetrotting game of cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-cat). That rote setup, spun with only the slightest variation out of the thousand other movies about the world’s best assassin on the brink of retirement, could still have made for an exciting movie with a solid script.
Instead, Gemini Man unfolds as if produced by an A.I. program designed to approximate everything that humans enjoy in their action movies. Plugging vaguely badass terminology into an Automatic Script Generator — plots like “one last job,” dialogue like “we’re not so different, you and I,” props like “grenade launcher” — might very well net a screenplay of suspicious similarity to the one Lee just produced as a multimillion-dollar effects bonanza. To test this hypothesis, we plugged vaguely badass terminology into this Automatic Script Generator. The resulting script does indeed preserve some of Gemini Man‘s best moments:
To be fair, most of the divergence between this A.I. version of Gemini Man and the one supposedly written by humans probably stems from my own cynical responses to the Mad Libs-style script prompt. For adjectives to describe my protagonist Real Will Smith, I put “human” and “old.” For a type of monster I put “CGI,” and for a weapon that could vanquish said monster I put “a good script.” When I wasn’t sure what to put, I just wrote “gun.”
Still, some of the most memorable (ahem) lines from the actual script are far more egregiously fake than those generated by this script-bot. In Gemini Man‘s centerpiece exposition scene — one of many — character with a PhD explains the miracle of the cloning process by simply noting that “it’s difficult…but it’s doable.” Later, after a huge shootout, Mary Elizabeth Winstead pointedly turns to Real Will Smith and asks, “How many rounds you got left?” He practically looks at the camera: “ONE.”
Ultimately, the somewhat-uneven digital effects aren’t Gemini Man‘s undoing at all. At times Digital Will Smith looks pretty damn convincing, especially in close-up. It’s a heckuva lot more convincing than Smith as Aladdin‘s Genie, anyway. Elsewhere he’s a bit weightless, a bit too fast, mainly in the otherwise gangbusters action sequences that are Gemini‘s clear strong point. But the dry, wooden screenplay is more soulless than any CGI character, and far more distracting. The scene-by-scene “this is how people talk, right?” dialogue is only surpassed in idiocy by a barrage of truly convenient plot points, like when the climax drops a third Will Smith from out of the clear blue sky to heighten the stakes for the final fight scene.
Ang Lee has asserted 120 fps as one aspect of “the future of cinema,” clearly pushing all his chips forward on the same technological advancements that have made some other auteurs fold their hands. But Gemini Man, for all the futuristic bullshit crowding the exceedingly-bright frame, is so locked to the past that it seems entirely cobbled together of lines and tropes from other action movies. It’s a wannabe genre hit so eager to wow you with effects that it forgets to lay an actual movie down as a foundation. It’s reminiscent of the recent trend in greenlighting sequels and spinoffs and cinematic universe “slates” before investing creative time to see if it’s a story worth telling.
In some other dystopia, a clone of Gemini Man with a less hollow construction is making bank and kickstarting Ang Lee’s “future of cinema.” Maybe it becomes another franchise for the leading man, too, along with Men in Black and Independence Day and Bad Boys. Here, where the real Gemini Man is getting panned and absolutely tanking at the box office, it’s probably safe to say that this particular Will Smith vehicle won’t be cruising down Franchise Highway any time soon. Though it’s still tempting to guess at the sequel titles a computer might come up with, like Attack of the Clones or Gemini Men or Three Identical Strangers.
And let’s be real — you’ve definitely heard Will Smith say this in more than one of his movies: