The Skydance film, following an aging hitman who faces off against a younger clone of himself, is written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital used its latest performance capture techniques to create the younger version of Smith.
“This story is not one that could have been told with cinema as we know it,” said Lee in a recent statement. “However, thanks to incredible new digital technology, not only can we finally see both younger and older Will Smith embodied together onscreen, but we can also experience the story in a deeply immersive way. It is my great fortune to be able to experiment and test the limits of what new digital cinema has to offer us. No less so to be able to work with two Will Smiths — one beautifully sophisticated, the other exuberantly honest. In my opinion, this is Will at his very best, and when the two come together, it is something truly magical.”
In The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton writes that while the film is an “effects-heavy 3D spectacular” and unique in Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) opting to do an action thriller, “the disappointing end result feels less than the sum of the talents involved, a weak script and thin high-concept plot only just held together by smart visual wizardry.”
Dalton reflects on the film’s development, going back to the late 1990s with potential casting of Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery. Of Smith’s casting, the THR critic says the film is “a vehicle for Smith to try and reboot his faltering action superstar status” and plants the actor “dangerously close to Liam Neeson and Nicolas Cage in the midlife action-man league.” In terms of special effects, the film’s highlight is the digital de-aging of Smith, of which Dalton commends Lee’s visual team for their “impressive job” of “rejuvenating the actor into a photorealistic fresh prince half his real age.”
Despite the incredible visual effects and the director’s dedication to explore an emerging digital aesthetic, Dalton says Gemini Man cannot escape its “amateurish” details such as “formulaic screenplay,” “stock characters” and overall “disconcerting effect of making a big-budget cinematic spectacle look like a vintage video-taped TV drama.”
For CinemaBlend, Mike Reyes notes that the main thrust of the movie’s premise is where the younger version of Smith arrives and starts to run Henry’s life. “It’s here that Gemini Man is supposed to really sell you, as the big sticking point of Ang Lee’s film is how realistic the CGI constructed Junior looks, not only when compared to the highlights of Will Smith’s career, but also when compared to the man himself.” Reyes calls this a “daunting visual hook,” but goes on to praise Lee’s technical accomplishment in the execution of the CGI character and the film’s 120-frames-per-second exhibition. The critic recognizes that the film is not perfect; the script is underdeveloped and there are effects that don’t hold up as well as they should, but “the creation of a wholly digital young Will Smith does make for an impressive feat when it’s at its best.”
Fionnuala Halligan writes in Screen Daily that the viewing experience of Gemini Man comes across “as a prototype of future action filmmaking,” with the critic praising the dual role of Smith. “This Weta Studios-engineered, hyper-real achievement is, like all high frame projection, hard on the eye — until the action kicks off, and then you can’t look away.” Halligan calls the film, which was shot on location in three continents, “crazily ambitious” and recommends it to moviegoing thrill seekers. The critic goes on to praise the cinematography from Dion Beebe, along with the production design, noting that the latter is challenging to pull off studio work with believability. Concluding her review, Halligan focuses on the technical achievements made. “The fact that Will Smith can be entirely re-created so successfully is obviously a game-change for the Screen Actors Guild — Lee’s prowess marks the first attempts at this, back when Oliver Reed died during the making of Gladiator, even the reincarnations of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in Star Wars, seem old and faded.”
In AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky suggests that the film is best enjoyed for its “killer” qualities: “Lee’s gracefully elastic direction of the sequence that first introduces Junior, pitting him against Henry in a series of shoot-outs that turns into an awesome motorcycle chase; the spotless hand-to-hand fights; the way the climactic showdown (staged against the less-than-scenic backdrop of a small-town hardware store) turns into fiery, full-bore martial arts action; the fisheye lenses, digitally composited smash zooms, and other eccentric touches with which Lee seasons the set pieces.” The critic wrote that Lee, as a director, has developed a habit of turning movies into “tech demos” — experimenting with high frame rates and high-resolution 3D, which both exist in Gemini Man. “For all the technical wizardry involved, the result falls somewhere in the steep downward slope of the uncanny valley: Junior, with his sad-puppy eyes, never looks completely human in motion (and sometimes looks just plain goofy), and the effect is done no favors by the fact that he spends a good part of his screen time sharing space with a real, flesh-and-blood Will Smith.”
Charles Bramesco writes in The Verge that Gemini Man is Lee’s attempt to “blow open the walls of cinematic hyperrealty,” and that the digital character-doubling works well. “Smith the Younger emotes with an organically recognizable humanity from under his weird digital mask, and Smith pitches his voice up a few semitones to play his younger self, which takes viewers over the age of 18 right back to his West Philadelphia day,” he says. “Smith has chemistry with himself, particularly in the scenes of hand-to-hand combat.” Regarding the film’s script, Bramesco notes that it “clashes with the forward thinking industry intellect applied to its production.” In concluding his review, Bramesco suggested that the “bells and whistles” may have ultimately got in the way of the storytelling.
Collider‘s Matt Goldberg hones in on Lee’s using a digital double for Smith, rather than casting a younger actor for the role. Noting films like Tron: Legacy and Terminator: Genisys, the critic notes that these films opted for the “old-vs-young” bit because Jeff Bridges and Arnold Schwarzenegger had, in fact, appeared in previous features. With Gemini Man, “there’s no good reason to make a younger Will Smith other than to pay around with tech tools” and that, Goldberg says, is “a weak excuse.” The critic adds that the premise is promising, and the film might have been “a fascinating meditation on regret and legacy” if Lee had not gone for the “simplest route possible” for Will Smith’s Henry and Junior. Due to this, Goldberg finds this film filled with “neat ideas swimming around” but unfortunately no follow-through from Lee.
Mark Jenkins for NPR agrees with fellow critics that Lee’s focus on cinematic technology over storytelling defeats any good intentions for Gemini Man. Jenkins also notes the script itself is filled with “clunky dialogue” that “might have been finessed by visual and verbal wit.” Touching on Smith’s role, the critic praises his action sequences but “lousy lines” by Henry don’t help. Jenkins wonders if Smith “downplayed his trademark insouciance” so Henry’s stiffness would be more believable. Then again, the critic shares that not even Smith’s talent or his digital clone could have saved this film “from being bland, sluggish, and sentimental.”
Gemini Man hits theaters Oct. 11.