2:15pm PT by Richard Newby
Can 'Gemini Man' Revive the Golden Age of '90s Sci-Fi?
This morning Paramount had us seeing double with the first trailer for the Ang Lee-directed sci-fi/action film Gemini Man, starring not one, but two Will Smiths. The long-gestating film, which began development as a Tony Scott feature in 1997, centers on assassin on the verge of retirement Henry Brogen (Smith), who is forced to combat a younger clone of himself (Smith) in the not-too-distant future. Since the film’s inception in the late '90s, a number of big names have been attached to star, including Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. When Ang Lee took over the project in 2017, he cast Smith in the lead role, giving the actor the unique opportunity to play both his current 50-year-old self and his 23-year-old self, who, thanks to the film’s revolutionary technology, looks like he just stepped right off the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. If the trailer for the film, which also stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen and Benedict Wong, is any indication, Gemini Man may be just what the science fiction genre needs.
It’s no overstatement to say that science fiction rules the cinemas. Almost every viewer is engaged in some level of geekdom, and as a result, sci-fi is Hollywood’s hottest commodity. That’s true now more than ever. But the '90s, the world in which Gemini Man was conceived, the world that welcomed original sci-fi films like Stargate (1994), Contact (1997), Armageddon (1997) and The Matrix (1999), is long behind us. If we look at the past decade or so, most of our big-budget science fiction films stem from preexisting concepts and long-running franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World, The Hunger Games, Marvel, and DC. Original science fiction films, if they’re not coming from the mind of Christopher Nolan, have more successfully thrived in low to mid-budget range. Upgrade (2018), Annihilation (2018), Sorry to Bother You (2018), Arrival (2016), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), Midnight Special (2016), Ex Machina (2014), Her (2013) and Looper (2012) have kept the genre feeling fresh at a discount, and made up for any lack in box office receipts with critical approval.
But big-budget original sci-fi, even those with some of our biggest stars attached, have struggled to gain traction and launch franchises. Passengers (2016), Jupiter Ascending (2015), Tomorrowland (2015), Elysium (2013), After Earth (2013) and Oblivion (2013) are examples of original sci-fi that, regardless of critical consensus, didn’t live up to box office expectations or hopes. Even big-budget sci-fi films attached to preexisting material have failed to connect when compared to those aforementioned massive franchises. Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), Terminator Genisys (2015), Ender’s Game (2013), Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and Tron: Legacy (2010) all seemed like guarantee success stories, but barely made a blip on the radar, even if some have begun entering the realm of cult favorites on Blu-ray. Sure, the '90s had its share of disappointments like Waterworld (1995), Strange Days (1995), Event Horizon (1997), Sphere (1998) and Dark City (1998), but their failures, in a world lacking all the tentpole properties we have today, seemed like part of the business. Audiences and creators moved on. But today, box office failures like Jupiter Ascending, After Earth and Elysium alter careers and the movies we see greenlit, sometimes for the better, but there is a sense of damage done all the same.
Modest success stories for original sci-fi like Super 8 (2011), Pacific Rim (2013) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014) aren’t unheard of, but their wins have rarely translated into a studio desire for more original sci-fi at budgets of $50 million or above. It’s rare to see an original sci-fi film breakout like Inception (2010), and it seems like a pipe dream to expect another Avatar (2009). But there is a desire for big-budget original sci-fi. While superheroes and Jedi may dominate the conversation, there is an audience out there who would show up for an original property with all the right ingredients. Gemini Man might be that film. It certainly boasts all the players to lead to a global sensation.
Lee may not be a box office titan, but he has consistently experimented with new technology to push the film medium forward and he’s beloved by award season voters, which makes him the perfect director to deliver an original blockbuster success story. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is revered in the halls of blockbuster cinema, and while he’s had his share of duds over the past few years with The Lone Ranger (2013), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and G-Force (2009), his track record suggests that he may be able to strike gold again, especially now that he’s divorced from Disney. And then there’s Smith, who defined big-budget sci-fi for a certain generation with Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), I, Robot (2004) and I Am Legend (2007). It’s easy to imagine respective audiences rooting for all three of these players as they attempt to get their groove back with a project that sounds just as promising as it does challenging.
Big-budget original science fiction needs a win, and hopefully Gemini Man can recapture the spirit of the '90s where a big-name director, producer and actor were an event unto themselves, regardless of preexisting material. Gemini Man looks appealing not simply because of its concept and slick action sequences, but because it looks to simultaneously tap into our nostalgia with a sunglasses-wearing Smith, and also our desire for an original, high-concept property that doesn’t require any prior knowledge. It’s a double threat.