"This movie is a leap of faith," Ang Lee tells our sister publication Total Film magazine, with the nervous laughter of a man who's just spent millions of dollars stepping into the unknown, and is about to show us the fruits of his labour. No stranger to the boundary-pushing technological vanguard, his latest film, Gemini Man, arrives later this year with a full suite of movie-making bells and whistles: native 3D, 4K resolution, 120 frames per second photography… Oh, and the most realistic digital human ever committed to film.
No, your eyes aren't playing tricks, that is a fully computer-generated, 23-year-old Will Smith you see above these words. Unlike digital de-aging, which uses the actor as a basis and (to put it very simply) smoothes out the wrinkles, Gemini Man's 'Junior' is driven by Smith's performance, but has been built from scratch by the visual effects wizards at Weta. "That’s not my skin that they just stretched," says Smith. "The level of the work is so spectacular. It's like… look, y'all aren't understanding how good we are! The team at Weta has done something that’s really never been done before."
There's a simple reason why it's never been done before: it hasn’t been possible. And not through lack of trying. First sold to Touchstone Pictures – a dormant division of Disney – by screenwriter Darren Lemke (Goosebumps, Shazam!) in 1997, Gemini Man is a film with a pleasingly old-school high concept: a legendary corporate assassin is hunted by a younger clone of himself. Over the intervening decades, numerous directors (Tony Scott, Curtis Hanson, Joe Carnahan), actors (Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery) and writers (Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, David Benioff, Brian Helgeland) have attempted to bring Gemini Man to the screen, but it wasn’t until Ang Lee signed on that the film finally took serious steps forward.
"The story has been around for 20 years, but technology wouldn’t allow the story to be told,” Lee explains. Not content with attempting something even the limitless resources of Lucasfilm failed to convincingly achieve just a few years ago with Tarkin and Leia in Rogue One, Lee is also shooting at a silky smooth 120fps, just like 2016 PTSD drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. "That was the first time I tried this media. I was really overwhelmed," Lee confesses. "It was like, all of a sudden, I had to swap to a new religion. For this, I started to feel like I kind of know what I’m doing now."
The leap to 120fps
We have been treated to roughly 20 minutes of Gemini Man in 120fps, and while the full-on fight scenes – including one where Smith and Smith tussle in a catacomb – sometimes have a bit of the Benny Hill about them, a sequence featuring 50-year-old Henry Brogan (Smith) as he’s pursued by 23-year-old Junior through the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, looks startlingly close to reality. "You’re not just watching somebody’s story, you’re experiencing the story yourself," says Lee. "It’s an immersive experience. We tried to make it look beautiful. We created different ways of lighting. I'm on a mission of trying to discover a new aesthetic for digital cinema, which is dimensionalised, with clarity. It excites me tremendously."
For the cast, which also includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong as Henry's allies, and Clive Owen as Clay Verris – Junior's 'father' who wants Henry off the board – 120fps meant re-learning every technique they rely on as actors. "It's a little scary, because none of the old tricks work," Smith laughs. "You know the things that you can hide in 24 frames… but the 3D camera, every shot is close, right? It's so in-your-face, every little pore, and every detail. What happens is, you can’t fake a moment. You really have to find it, and you have to get there. It's wildly unforgiving, and the thing that was most difficult for me."
But Gemini Man is more than a mere technological showcase, Lee wisely recognising that, "No matter how technology has advanced, it's nothing unless it’s telling a compelling human story." To that end, as well as a pulse- quickening action-thriller, Gemini Man will explore some weighty existential questions, including the virtues of youth versus experience, how we would react when confronted with ourselves and whether a genetical identical copy of a human possesses its own soul.
Smith versus Smith
"We think of [Junior] as a person," says Lee. "He’s not a robot, he's a soulful human being. There's an innocence. There's a character. There's specificity. If you could live twice, and you see yourself, what would you tell him? And when you see your future, your trajectory, how do you cope with that? Does a clone have a soul? Does it have emotion? What does that make us? So the human existential question is hidden underneath an entertaining action-thriller."
For Smith, who was confronted by his old performances on a near-daily basis while making the film to ensure the relatively inexperienced, immature Junior was as close as possible to the actor at 23, making the film was cause for some serious self-reflection. "It is really great, to be able to take a look at myself like that, to be able to take a look at 'youth versus experience' and, 'What age would you really go back to if you could,'" Smith ponders.
Ultimately, with the entire film's premise hinging on the credibility of Smith's young clone, Gemini Man will succeed or fail on the most realistic digital character to date. "I hope that you’ll believe in Junior," Lee admits, with a chuckle. "We want to make something unbelievable."
Gemini Man opens October 4. The above article, plus plenty more interviews, reviews and features, is available in the latest issue of Total Film now. If you're a fan of the magazine, why not subscribe so that you never miss an issue, and you'll get exclusive subscriber-only covers, like the one below, delivered directly to your doormat before the magazine hits shelves? What are you waiting for?
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