Gemini Man (2019)

2020 #141
Ang Lee | 117 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Gemini Man

Gemini Man is a film that, at every point I can remember it being talked about, was discussed more for its various technical feats than anything else. Partly that’s because there are a couple of angles. Firstly, the most obvious: it stars Will Smith as an ageing assassin who must fight… a 25-years-younger Will Smith, achieved with motion capture and CGI. Secondly, director Ang Lee shot it in 3D 4K HFR — that’s High Frame Rate, if you don’t know, with the picture running at 120 frames per second rather than the 24fps we’ve been used to for the past 90-odd years (excepting The Hobbit trilogy, though only if you saw one of the relatively-limited HFR theatrical screenings). Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Gemini Man often feels more like a tech demo with a plot grafted onto it than it does a fully functioning movie in its own right.

Consequently, I’m going to spend more of this review writing about the film’s presentation than its content. To some degree, that speaks for itself as criticism. But if you are interested in the film and don’t give a toss about how exactly you’re seeing it (or don’t have a choice), feel free to whizz down to the last two paragraphs (just after the picture of Young Will Smith) where I finally offer some thoughts on the film itself.

Back to the tech, then. There’s currently only one way to see Gemini Man in its intended format: at the cinema. I say “currently” — obviously such opportunities expired when its theatrical run ended, and I don’t imagine it’s likely to get a re-release. Every other option is a compromise. Want to see it in 3D? Not only will you need the appropriate home cinema setup, but you’ll have to import the disc from Germany, the only country where it was granted a 3D Blu-ray release. Want to see it in HFR? That’s easier, because the 4K disc is widely available, though obviously you still need the appropriate kit. (I presume the digital 4K versions are HFR too, but I don’t actually know that.) Mind you, even that’s something of a compromise, because tech limitations mean the home release is 60fps rather than the full 120 (to be fair, so were most HFR cinema screenings).

Action Man

I watched it in 4K 60fps, and, oh, it’s weird. So so weird. Distracts-you-for-the-entire-film weird. Virtually-the-only-thing-I’m-going-to-talk-about-in-this-review weird. The disc even begins with a notice/warning that it’s at 60fps rather than 24fps, so presumably they know how weird it feels. The most obvious effect of more frames per second is that motion is smoother, with reduced motion blur, but that applies on a micro level to lend an unnatural clarity to everything. The effect on motion is often called “the soap opera effect”, because such cheap drama has traditionally been shot at TV’s higher default frame rate. Of course, so is much other television, or even behind-the-scenes footage on films; so while it’s not a wholly inaccurate nickname, the effect reminded me more of TV documentaries. The film begins with a train journey in a lusciously green-looking Belgium, before travelling around the globe to other sunny locations with glamorous establishing shots. It looks less like a Hollywood action movie, more like Will Smith is the new host of Cruising with Jane McDonald.

When it’s not playing travelogue, it looks like a tech demo. I don’t think that’s just the added smoothness, but everything about how it’s shot: it’s very bright and saturated, the kind of look you get in marketing promos, not feature films. Even paused it looks a little odd. Partly that’s the boost given to the colour palette by HDR, but at this point I’ve watched plenty of other films with HDR to be familiar with its effects, and I think this was beyond normal. The other thing the visual quality reminded me of was low-budget films by very new/amateur filmmakers, and that’s definitely to do with Ang Lee’s shot choices — lots of stuff at eye level, gentle pans and tilts, in locations so dull they might have been found around someone’s hometown. It doesn’t help any that all the fonts they’ve used for captions look like the editing software’s bland default. And further, it’s also the effect of shooting on high-resolution digital video — it’s ultra-clear, with none of the grain of real film, but, again, that’s a look more familiar from low-budget productions. Would HFR work better if it was shot on real film? You’d get back some of that tactile grit, rather than telltale digital smoothness.

Biker Man

What about when the film gets to its big action sequences — the kind of thing that obviously a no-budget newbie couldn’t afford. Would the change of milieu fix the mental associations? Yes and no, in that it just adds other ones: the first big sequence, the bike chase you probably saw in trailers or clips, looks like a computer game. Again, it’s a mix of elements: the digital sheen, the smooth frame rate, the shot choices (lots of POV or close following, like a game’s third-person camera), and an unnatural-seeming speed — it looks like some of the CGI has been animated too fast, though that could be HFR’s fluidity making normal motion look odd because we’re not used to it.

The advantage of wondering all this while watching the film at home was that, afterwards, I could pop in the regular Blu-ray and compare a few scenes in 24fps 1080p SDR. Immediately, it looks a lot more like a regular movie. Is that indeed the loss of HFR’s smoothness, or is it the drop in resolution, or the loss of HDR enhancement? Without being able to view different permutations it’s hard to say which one causes the jarring effect, or if it‘s the incremental change made by each that adds up to a radically different picture when combined. That said, obviously I’ve watched 4K HDR films before, and it’s never struck me as odd-looking as much as this film (I’ve seen some strange applications of HDR, but that tends to be in individual shots/scenes, not an entire movie). The bike chase also looks more normal on the whole, though some of the bits I alluded to before still looked dodgy, so I can only conclude it’s a mix of the animation (because I’m sure it’s not a real stunt) and the HFR.

If all that wasn’t distracting enough, there’s the fact that one of the film’s main stars is a de-aged Will Smith. We’ve seen plenty of de-ageing in films now, whether it be Marvel’s flashbacks or Scorsese’s varied eras in The Irishman. This feels more extensive, though — they’ve not just airbrushed Smith’s age-related blemishes, but recreated his youthful visage with full motion-captured CGI. The end result is both incredibly realistic animation and also not quite there. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s not real — I wonder if someone unfamiliar with the film’s setup wouldn’t register it. It looks more convincing than I remember Peter Cushing being in Rogue One, and I remember stories of kids who didn’t realise he was CGI. I guess the best praise is that, as the film went on, I realised I’d just accepted Young Will as his own character, not a second Old Will in disguise. There are scenes where he’s called on to do Proper Acting and it works. Unfortunately, it’s almost ruined by one scene at the end where the effect suddenly looks like a ten-year-old computer game. Was this a last-minute re-edit, I wonder, leaving them without enough time to do the CGI properly? It’s a shame to have dropped the ball at the last hurdle.

Young Man

And if you can get past all the technical distractions (which I guess most people will, as “the tech” is not why most people watch films, and on any format less than 4K the visual oddness evaporates anyway), what about the film itself? Well, it’s a passable action-thriller with a sci-fi tweak. For the level of the latter, think something like Face/Off rather than, say, Blade Runner. I’ve seen quite a few people compare it to a ’90s action movie and that’s pretty fair — subtract the fancy cameras and CGI and that’s what’s left. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re so young that ’90s action movies are Old and consequently Bad. There are a couple of very impressive and exciting action sequences — the bike chase, primarily (which I bet looks fab in 3D). That said, the Blu-ray’s visual effects featurette reveals they faked a bunch of stunts that Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie would’ve done for real as a third-tier action sequence, which takes the shine off a little. (On the other hand, it also reveals that there’s some fucking incredible CGI in this movie — stuff you’d never imagine was an effect but is, including a full-on close-up of Old Will.)

So, the reason the tech presentation remains the film’s strongest talking point is that the film underneath is decent but nothing particularly special. That said, I do think it’s been given a hard rap by critics and viewers alike — whether or not you’re interested in the experimental visuals, it’s a fine sci-fi-tinged action blockbuster, with all the attendant qualities and demerits that implies.

3 out of 5

Gemini Man is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.