Digital de-aging was invented to tell stories about regret, or so you’d gather from the two big movies from the two big filmmakers who’ve put the technology front and center in their work this fall. In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese uses it to take Robert De Niro from a 30-something dabbler in crime to a geriatric gangster who’s got no one left to talk to but the camera, having alienated or outlived everyone who mattered to him. In Gemini Man, Ang Lee casts Will Smith in a double role as a government-sanctioned assassin on the cusp of retirement, and as the younger version of himself who vies with his elder and who’s yet to commit his life to the same solitary path. These Mans, Irish- and Gemini, inhabit vastly different genres of movies, but they’re both, at heart, about the gap between someone’s priorities when they’re younger and the things that start to seem more important as they age.
I get it — when it works, de-aging is an inherently melancholy achievement, simultaneously turning back time with the magic of movies and making you more aware of its march forward in the real world. That’s especially true when it’s applied to a face as familiar as Smith’s — one that’s been documented onscreen for well over half his life. The two roles seem intended to bookend his career to date. His primary Gemini Man character, Henry Brogan, is, like Smith, 51. Junior, who has no idea that he’s been tasked to take out the man from whom he was cloned, is 23, just a year older than Smith was when he made the jump into acting with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With the exception of a coda that might suffer from taking place in the harsh light of day, Junior is an impressively believable creation. That’s not only due to the digital wizardry that went into making his mug so boyish — Smith imbues Junior with his own physicality, conveying that he’s someone who’s learning to use his body as a weapon, but who still doesn’t feel at ease in his own skin.
Unfortunately, Lee’s movie doesn’t devote its entire focus to the surprisingly tender interactions between Henry and Junior, who start off battling each other, and then start sharing hard truths, and soon fall into a relationship in which Henry essentially appoints himself his own parent and doles out advice. There’s a whole action movie attached to it, one that was shot with an extra-high frame rate and that’s meant for 3-D, though good luck finding a theater playing it exactly as intended. Lee shot 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 120 frames per second, and he does the same with Gemini Man, and neither movie does an adequate job of conveying whatever it is Lee sees in this format, though he clearly believes it’s the direction movies are taking. It’s not just that the frame rate, while offering crisper resolution and a deeper depth of field, also summons the sensation of watching a television with motion smoothing on. It feels uniquely unsuited to the kind of action Lee has in mind here. There’s too much information onscreen, and it lays bare all the careful artifice that goes into the set pieces, making the choreography of the blows feel too apparent and the firefights look fake. Sometimes it’s just difficult to know where to look — in one dramatic shoot-out in a store, I couldn’t stop staring at the perfectly visible selection of chips lining the shelves they dove past.
Junior, we’re told, was secretly cloned around the same time Dolly the Sheep was, and presumably using the same approach, though neither Henry nor his sidekicks, Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Baron (Benedict Wong), are all that curious about the hows or the implications. Actually, Henry seems more bothered by the fact that Junior was raised by his amoral former colleague Clay Varris (Clive Owen), as a wildly elaborate nature-versus-nurture experiment to see if Junior will be a better supersoldier if he grows up with the dad Henry didn’t have. Henry needn’t worry, it turns out — Gemini Man is so firmly on the side of nature that Junior manages to have all of Henry’s emotional intimacy issues alongside his incredible fighting skills. The movie is so disinterested in the philosophical issues it raises as to feel reluctant to commit to being this particular breed of science fiction at all, and by the awkward ending, it doesn’t seem like it really needed to. At its core is a scenario in which someone’s given the chance to confront their younger self and call out their worst choices — one that feels like it has more to do with therapy than with all the unconvincing action in which it’s unfortunately packaged.