'Gemini Man' review: Cutting-edge CGI can't save this dud of a movie

In Ang Lee's latest film, the Oscar-winning director shackles himself with special effects and sci-fi action.

The concept for Gemini Man has been floating around Hollywood for decades, but it wasn’t until the technology caught up that it could actually become a movie. Turning Will Smith into a lifelike CGI copy of his younger self was no easy feat, and director Ang Lee does an impressive job showcasing these cutting-edge special effects with an impressive array of high-end cameras. It’s just a shame that, in all those years of waiting, no one came up with a story interesting enough to validate the tech that makes Gemini Man possible.

If the premise of Gemini Man sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re thinking of Looper. In both movies, an aging assassin is marked for death and pursued by a younger version of himself trying to kill the old man. Eventually, they team up to take down the corrupt system that pit the hero against himself. The end.

The only difference is that Looper featured time travel, Bruce Willis, and Joseph Gordon in some questionable makeup, adding up to a neat little sci-fi thriller. Gemini Man swaps time travel for cloning and casts Will Smith as both the old and young versions of himself; the plot plods along here too, but it’s mostly just an excuse for a serious of action sequences that became increasingly extravagant and less interesting to watch as the movie goes on.

One highpoint in Gemini Man comes early when younger Will Smith (Junior) first arrives to assassinate older Smith (Henry), who’s already on the run from the U.S. government. The scene, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube, features a stunning motorcycle chase through the colorful streets of Cartagena, Colombia. It culminates in motorcycle-based combat that can only be described as bike-fu.

But even in moments like this where Gemini Man shines by shelving the plot to deliver pure CGI action, it’s still imperfect. The way Junior and Henry grab at each other often feels more playful than lethal. (Aren’t they supposed to be killer assassins?). At times, these rapid-fire sequences look almost too crisp onscreen. A little bit of motion blur goes a long way.

We should talk about the CGI, which is pretty damn impressive — from a technological perspective, at least. It also threatens to usher in an era of CGI movie stars, especially considering Hollywood’s current over-reliance on de-aging special effects. But Ang Lee previously said that creating his Will Smith “avatar” cost more than hiring Smith himself, so don’t expect CGI’d actors to replace the real thing any time soon. At least when it comes to A-list celebrities.

Still, for the most part, when young Will Smith turns up onscreen it’s completely believable. It takes a moment to adjust, but by the second scene Junior is in he feels like just another character. There are a few moments where the CGI falters, though, especially at the end when Junior suddenly looks more like an early 2000s video game than the supposed greatest technological leap in movie-making history, but that’s really an outlier.

Still, that last appearance is so bad I even asked Paramount if the version I saw was unfinished. The studio confirmed it was the final cut. So brace yourself for a few rough moments.

gemini man
'Gemini Man'

Besides Will Smith (and Will Smith) the rest of the Gemini Man cast is impressive and capable, doing their best with stock characters and a middling script. Benedict Wong, in particular, shines as an old army buddy of Smith’s with a passion for airplanes. How long will it take before Wong gets his own action movie, instead of playing side-kick to Smith or Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead also performs admirably in a limited role as a a federal agent sent to spy on Will Smith’s retired assassin, only to get drawn into the action. Gemini Man flirts with turning her into the romantic lead, but smartly zags away from that tired trope — though not before forcing Winstead to partially undress on camera for pretty flimsy reasons. (Don’t worry parents, this movie is firmly in PG-13 territory.)

Clive Owen also plays a perfectly decent villain, but Gemini Man never gives him much to do. The movie sometimes pretends to grapple with the bigger questions raised by cloning the world’s best assassin, but doesn’t have anything serious to say. When Owen does get to deliver his big speech, it’s cut short before the audience (or the characters) can even process it.

Besides the CGI, a few artistic shots, and the occasional Will Smith quip, there’s little redeeming about Gemini Man. Ang Lee truly does seem committed to this technology, and if you’ve seen Life of Pi you know he’s capable of combining visual effects and artistic vision into something great. But when you throw in a half-baked action story, it seems to shackle Lee’s vision to the point where the signature traits that define his style and make his movies feel like beautiful, sad fairy tales are stripped away.

All that’s left is CGI for the sake of CGI, and who wants to see that?

Don't expect anything as artistic as 'Life of Pi' in 'Gemini Man.'
Don't expect anything as artistic as 'Life of Pi' in 'Gemini Man.'

Gemini Man hits theaters on October 11.