I vividly remember stepping into my screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey back in 2012. What was ahead of me? 48 frames per second in 3D. I did not really know what to expect. Reports about the experience ranged from bad to abysmal. But I was curious. Was it really that awful? Turns out… it was. The sets looked faked, the makeup looked terrible, people moved weirdly. I could not fathom why anyone would choose to make their film this way. But since it was received so poorly amongst everyone, I assumed it was going to be a one-off experiment we would never really need to see again. Then comes Ang Lee, the two-time Oscar winning director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. 48 frames per second was not enough for him. Oh, no. He needed a full 120 frames for his followup to Life of Pi, which won him his second Oscar and made his first step into 3D filmmaking.
I skipped out on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2016 because I could not fathom subjecting myself to a higher frame rate ever again. If 48 was too much for me, nearly three times that number must make for a nearly three times worse experience, and the vast majority of reports bore that out. In the three years since Billy Lynn, how I interact with movies has changed rather dramatically. For one, outright dismissal of a film sight unseen just feel unacceptable. Now, I want filmmakers to take me where they want me to go. I want to be open to new ideas, new kinds of characters, and, yes, even new technologies. So, if Ang Lee thinks 120 fps in 3D is the way to go, I want to see why he thinks so with his latest film Gemini Man. Unfortunately in Austin, the full 120 fps is unavailable. The best I could get was 60, which is still two and a half times what we are used to.
Not only was this a vastly superior experience than my time with The Hobbit, I may even go so far as to say I like quite a bit about what high frame rate has to offer. Plenty of kinks need ironing, and we are still firmly in the experimental phase of the technology. But so many moments pack an undeniable visual punch that left me with my mouth agape, whether it just be a train blowing past a station in the opening moments or a chaotic firefight in a hardware store in the climax. When filmed properly with an incredibly sharp, deep focus, the depth and clarity of the moving images can just give you a visceral buzz in your seat. Also, the eye strain of watching a three-dimensional image for an extended period of time goes away, something I have had a lot of trouble with in the past.
You start getting into trouble when scenes have a shallow depth of field or the camera takes on shakier movements. For the former, not having that sharpness translate to the entire environment just makes the actors look like they are standing in front of a bad, blurry green screen. The foreground has no relationship with the background, and we are getting too much visual information to hide that. And the chaotic camera with no motion blur makes everything feel totally unnatural. Camera movement that does not drastically shake the image remains fine, though not as great as a locked off, tripod shot. These are techniques that have come natural to the evolution of over one-hundred years of 24 fps filmmaking, but this new form requires a whole new approach that Ang Lee is still figuring out even on a second feature.
I have spent the entirety of this piece discussing the technology of Gemini Man. But this is a big action movie starring Will Smith? Isn’t there more than just the nuts and bolts? Quite frankly, not really. This film would be completely uninteresting without its technological experimentation. The greatest killer in the world being hunted by a clone of himself. Government conspiracy. Yadda-yadda-yadda. This script has been passed around Hollywood since the 1990s, and it feels it. Ang Lee made his career crafting personal, insightful character dramas at every scale, from The Ice Storm to Hulk. This just feels like a script he picked up off of a shelf that was so straightforward and boring that he saw as an excellent opportunity to not have to focus on story and just spend all his time with the tech.
Smith takes on double duty as our hero and his younger self clone, a hit-and-miss visual effect where the team at WETA crafted an entirely CGI young Will Smith as they would Gollum rather than going the route of de-aging as they do in the Marvel films. Ultimately, I think I prefer this method, as the face can be more expressive and less smooth, but the look of lip movement still isn’t great with motion capture. He is an actor with a light touch and does a great job of selling a younger version of himself, particularly since we are all so familiar with what he was like as a performer at the age he is playing.
Despite featuring one of the biggest movie stars in the world, the real star of Gemini Man is that 4K 3D HFR. Because it is still so new, you are always thinking about it, dissecting it, trying to figure out why. Until (or if) it becomes far more common in mass audience moviemaking, I do not see that changing. Simply as an experience to have, Gemini Man demands to be seen. You may love how it looks, or you could find just as repulsive as plenty of people have. However, if the only way to see the film near you is in standard 2D, 24 fps, there really is no reason to spend your time. Without that presentation, this is a film you accidentally catch in a hotel on TNT. You watch it for fifteen minutes and switch channels because you know that time is better spent watching a marathon of Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network as you try to go to sleep.
Categories: New Releases