Gemini Man has been in development for more than two decades, making it the same age as one of its protagonists: a 23-year-old CGI-version of Will Smith, named Junior.
First conceived in 1997, it’s gone through three directors, seven leading men, and countless re-writes before landing on the current version directed by Ang Lee, and starring Smith, from a script by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff. The delay is mostly due to the technological obstacles inherent in the plot: Veteran government assassin Henry Brogan (Smith) gets caught up in a whirlwind conspiracy that pits him against a younger clone of himself, sent by his enemies to kill him.
Lee’s vision, produced by action guru Jerry Brukheimer, combines frame-rate (120 frames per second) and 3D technology, adding to the visual wonder of watching Will Smith literally fight his younger self. But it’s undeniably a blockbuster action film, it also grapples with more subtle notions of nature vs. nurture, the origins of power, and the terrible consequences of its misuse, and of course, aging.
In a roundtable interview after the first-ever screening of the film, Lee explained that his vision excluded the kind of de-aging process that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have embraced to make their stars appear younger. Instead, a completely animated Junior was built from scratch using motion capture of Smith, which was then tweaked with references and footage from older performances and movies.
But creating an entirely new version of an actor who has been in the public eye for over 30 years was, in Lee’s words, “a double-edged sword.” At 50, Smith has the gravitas of one who’s lived. He’s no longer the kid from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or Men in Black. As Henry, he retains his signature charm and levity, but there’s an edge there that wasn’t as present in his past work.
“I feel like I found a new Will Smith, with sophistication and charm,” Lee said. “Sometimes he looked kind of like Clark Gable to me.”
But while that’s an asset for the role of Henry, it’s also a challenge when it comes to Junior.
“It’s an obstacle, but also you have more to work with,” Lee said. “But you have to play to people’s memories, you cannot just cast him in a generally dramatic performance. That’s not how we remember him. He was very generous about sharing what makes Will Smith, Will Smith. He gave me a lot of tips.”
He added: “The hardest thing in animation is: How do you get Will Smith’s charm? Whether he’s crying, he’s angry, or menacing — there’s a lot of menacing scenes — you still love him. What is the secret? Of all the people in the world, why him? How do you animate that? How can you capture that? He can’t play that — he’s 50, and you can’t retrieve it from his old movies. You can use it as a reference, but what drives him? I’ve made movies long enough to learn to respect that a movie star is not just an actor. You just try, shot by shot.”
The result is uncanny and compelling, more than worth the long wait.
Gemini Man opens in theaters October 11.