If you had the chance to talk to your younger self, what would you say? That’s the premise, more or less, of Gemini Man, the upcoming sci-fi action film starring Will Smith…and Will Smith. Smith stars as an assassin named Henry who is being hunted down by a younger clone of himself, called Junior, sent to kill him by his former employer. Ang Lee directs the film in stunning 120 frames-per-second 3D, a feat that would already be impressive if not for the cutting-edge technology used to turn Will Smith into his 23-year-old self. But before you make comparisons to the “de-aging” technology used frequently by Marvel, Lucasfilm, and other studios, Smith wants to clarify: it’s not de-aging.
“The younger character is not me,” Smith said during a filmed Q&A screened after a footage presentation of Gemini Man attended by /Film. “That is a 100 percent digital character. A completely recreated character. They didn’t take my image and just stretch some of the lines. It is a completely CGI character in the same way that the lions in The Lion King are CGI characters.”
Smith’s dual performance is highlighted in the Gemini Man footage presentation, which /Film got to attend in New York City. The presentation showed three extended clips in 60 frames-per-second 3D (a step down from 120 but still in eye-popping high definition), which painted a fuller picture of what kind of action film Gemini Man will be.
It’s Smith’s performance you see as Junior in Gemini Man, done through a motion-capture suit that the Weta team then uses to build the assets to make Junior. The physical recreation of Junior is built with that and with reference material from the films of Smith’s early career like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Bad Boys, and Independence Day. But the challenge facing the Oscar-winning director — who jumped at the chance to experiment with envelope-pushing technology following his 3D effects-heavy Life of Pi, and his polarizing high frame rate drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — was not just to make an accurate recreation of Smith’s young face, but of his performance.
“He would tell me, ‘Act…less good,'” Smith said of Lee when he was directing him during his performances as Junior. Lee wanted a certain unease in Junior’s persona that reflected the acting talents of a young, less experienced Will Smith. It makes watching Junior in these scenes all the more odd and almost refreshing, because in the early days of his career, Smith wasn’t taking on any dramatic roles. In his 20s, Smith was charming audience in sitcoms, bombastic cop movies, and sci-fi action flicks. But in Gemini Man, Junior goes through an existential crisis, learning from his older self that he is a clone produced solely for the purpose of replacing the original. In the three extended sequences we watch, Smith pulls double duty not just as Henry and Junior, but in delivering both the hard-hitting action scenes and dramatic emotional monologues.
Here are our impressions of the three sequences shown at the Gemini Man footage presentation.
Shoot First, Grenade Later
The first sequence opens in the sunny streets of Cartagena, Colombia, where an assassin prowls as Henry wakes after escaping his mysterious pursuer. Henry then tells a sleeping Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Baron (Benedict Wong) that a sniper is on the roof, and that he will distract him so that they can escape. “You’re a shitty houseguest, you know that?” Baron sullenly responds.
Henry cautiously ventures outside onto the dusty streets — the vibrant colors of the plaster walls and red tile roofs pop out in the high-frame rate 3D — and spots the sniper through a reflection in the puddle, shooting through his own shirt to draw his attention. Hiding behind a car, Henry loads his gun and points his sights at the killer, only to realize that the killer is a young version of himself. He hesitates long enough to get spotted, and he leads Junior into a villa for an all-out firefight that destroys the entire house. The two engage in a firefight for a few minutes before Henry yells at Junior that he doesn’t want to shoot him, to which Junior smoothly replies (in a way that very much recalls younger Smith’s outsized charisma), “Do you mind if I shoot you?” As Junior gets closer, Henry throws a grenade at him, only for Junior to shoot it away before it explodes.
The second sequence is another action scene that also gains power from the high frame rate and subtle CG trickery. The scene follows Junior after he’s taken Danny hostage into an underground catacomb lined with human skills and bones. She nervously chatters to him, asking about his plan, which he sullenly replies to — though he gets a Nat Geo joke in there. Junior sets up a tripwire behind them before knocking out the lights, putting on a night vision mask and gas mask in anticipation of Henry’s attack. As Junior zip-ties Danny’s hands, he reveals that he was told that Henry had “cracked” and killed eight operatives, to which Danny explains that the operatives were sent by Gemini to kill Henry and her. Junior puts tape over her mouth before she can say more, but soon after the tripwire goes off and Junior is knocked down by Henry and disarmed.
Henry unties Danny, who lights a flare that lights the rest of the scene. Henry then explains to Junior that he doesn’t want to kill him, but save him. To convince him, he launches into a monologue about all of Junior’s tics and habits: he’s a virgin and longs for connection, he hates cilantro, loves puzzles and chess, suffers from insomnia, and the only time he’s happy is when he’s “on his belly, about to squeeze the trigger.” Junior is rattled but refuses to believe Henry’s revelations that Varris (Clive Owen), who raised Junior from infancy, had taken Henry’s blood and cloned him. Tensions rise between the two, and Junior attacks. The two get into a violent fight that — despite being half CGI — feels more hard-hitting and bruising because of the enhancements by the animators to make it look like the two are really making contact. The fight goes on for several minutes before they both fall down a shaft and into some water.
The third scene shows an emotional confrontation between Junior and Clayton “Clay” Varris. Junior demands to know why Varris, who he refers to as his father, cloned him. “I always believed you’d be happier not knowing,” Varris responds measuredly.
“He’s your darkness, you have to walk through this on your own,” Varris adds, explaining that the point of assigning Junior with the task of killing Henry was to give him Henry’s “gifts without the pain” of growing up without a father. Tears flow from Junior’s eyes, and Varris hugs him. While it is slightly apparent that Junior is a CG character — there’s a distance, or separation between him and other characters whenever they exchange dialogue — seeing a young Will Smith give an emotionally tortured performance is like discovering a lost performance from the actor’s early career. It’s unusual and it’s arguably even more amazing to see than the high frame rates and cutting edge technology.
“23-year-old me couldn’t have played this role,” Smith said during the post-footage Q&A, and that feels particularly true here.
Gemini Man opens October 11, 2019.
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