He’s made Chow Yun-fat’s swordsman soar and Eric Bana’s Hulk smash, but with his new film Gemini Man, director Ang Lee faces one of his biggest challenges yet: pitting present-day Will Smith against past Will Smith. After seeing the finished version of the movie, which opens in theaters on Oct. 11, Yahoo Entertainment can report that he successfully pulls off the illusion through the magic of high-frame rate photography and computer generated imagery.
While Marvel movies like Captain America: Civil War and Captain Marvel have given audiences the chance to see de-aged versions of Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, the “young” Will Smith you’ll meet in Gemini Man is a full-blown CGI creation, which Lee emphasized to a group of journalists during a post-screening discussion. “No one has done it in this way. We did the whole body, not just the face. We go into details probably nobody did ... [and] we did it from scratch. That’s why I don’t like to call it de-aging; it’s not just a brush-up. Age does more mysterious things than just the wrinkles.”
In the film, the flesh-and-blood Smith plays ace sniper Henry Brogan, whose decision to retire from the killing game at age 51 makes him a target for assassination by his former employers. Enter Junior, a twentysomething clone of Henry who has been raised to surpass the original model. Lee says that his team of F/X artists used such movies as Six Degrees of Separation and Bad Boys for reference in recreating the ’90s era Fresh Prince, and were also aided by a motion-capture performance by the 2019 Smith. “You wanted somebody who has been famous for the last 30 years,” Lee explains, adding that previous drafts of the screenplay were written with actors like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood in mind. “There might be two or three people who can do it, and of course Will Smith is one of them.”
According to Lee, those previous scripts — which date back to 1997 — followed a more traditional action movie structure. Once he came onboard, though, he pushed for an extensive rewrite to hone in on the metaphorical implications of an older man coming face-to-face with his younger self. The final version of Gemini Man (which is credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke) still makes room for memorable set-pieces like a pulse-pounding motorcycle chase and an intense Smith vs. Smith brawl, but in general has its mind on weighty topics like regret, failure and fatherhood.
The latter subject also played an outsized role in Lee’s underappreciated take on Marvel’s Incredible Hulk, and the director owns up to the thematic connection. “There was some unfinished business from that movie. I do have some father issues, and being a father myself. The subject of nature vs. nurture really got to me. It makes you wonder about you own existence: What would you tell your younger self? I’m old enough to think about that kind of thing.”
Hollywood will have a lot to think about now that Gemini Man offers a persuasive model for how actors can remain forever young onscreen even as they age in real life. And, beyond that, should the same techniques be used to potentially resurrect performers who have passed on? Movies like the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One have already taken steps towards that potential future, creating a controversial digital versions of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, who appeared in select scenes.
For his part, Lee has no objections to the idea of creating a younger version of a deceased actor, but doesn’t believe the technology is where it needs to be for that to be a viable artistic choice. “I believe in the cocktail at least for now: you blend what’s real and what’s not. When it’s total CG, you have to drive a human performance and reference so many things. I like to joke that it’s a lot harder than [directing the real] Will Smith and it’s twice as expensive! Sometimes you feel like you’re doing a poor imitation of God’s work. I think we can crack it, but we’re not there yet. Before that, I don’t think it’s a good idea. You might do a brief moment, but to sell a story or a situation without a [living] person driving the performance, I don’t think it’s believable.”
Gemini Man opens in theaters on Oct. 11.
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