Gemini Man, in which Will Smith comes face to face with a de-aged clone of himself, was made from a ’90s script originally meant for Tony Scott. At some point, it was saddled with mid-2000s military politics and anxieties — a la the Bourne films — until eventually, Ang Lee got his hands on it, turning it into a futuristic visual experiment. Like Lee’s previous film, the contained war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk 2016, Gemini Man was shot at 120 frames per second, and was projected as such on the handful of screens that could accommodate it.
Unfortunately, not a single screen could show the film exactly as Lee had intended — at 120fps, in 3D, and at a 4K resolution — which is a shame, given that Lee is one of the most visually interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood. But does his use of “HFR” High Frame Rate actually work? Well, not exactly. I’m not sure a narrative film shot at 120fps can work, barring very specific circumstances. However, the conversation about Lee’s use of technology, and the kinds of stories he applies them to, is worth having.
First, a brief primer: What does 120fps mean?
Movies are generally shot and projected at 24 fps at least on film; it’s 23.976 on most digital cameras, which means ~24 still images are projected in quick succession, within the span of a second, to create the illusion of one continuous moving picture. At five times the frame rate, you lose the motion blur between frames, which helps approximate the vision of the human eye. Without it, things begin to look a little too smooth, almost like they’ve been sped up. You may have seen this effect on televisions in shop windows, which are usually calibrated to show off their sharpness. You can probably experiment with a similar effect at home by turning the “motion smooth” option on your TV on and off things not shot at higher frame rates will have the gaps filled by “guess frames”.
Most people’s first exposure to any HFR footage was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 2012. Even its mere 48fps was enough to occasionally expose the seams of the makeup, sets and costumes; generally, HFR has the effect of exposing the artifice of cinema. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many side-by-side comparisons of 120fps video on the internet; if you’re reading this on a phone or laptop, your screen probably can’t handle more than 60fps, and neither can YouTube. Most HFR showings of Gemini Man were in 60fps to begin with only fourteen screens across the U.S. played it at the full 120fps; for a comparison of different viewing experiences, do read Bilge Ebiri.
So, to illustrate just some the effect created by HFR, here’s the trailer for Gemini Man in 24fps, followed by the same trailer at 60fps:
Can you spot the difference? The 120fps version of the film is similar in aesthetic to what you see in the latter video, though its effects are compounded — for better and for worse.
Gemini Man opens with Will Smith’s Henry Brogan carrying out one last hit, as agents in movies are wont to do before their governments turn on them. Brogan tracks a bullet train across the screen and takes aim from a distance; right off the bat, Lee shows off the capabilities of his technology. Lateral movement is generally hard to follow unless anchored to a specific object — try slowly moving your eyes from left to right and you’ll experience a bit of a jitter. At 120fps, motion across the of the screen becomes smooth and hyper-visible; as we follow the train through Brogan’s eyes and through his scope, the experience becomes abstract, ened in order to place us in the point of view of a hyper-focused, hyper-competent sniper.
This effect does not, however, extend to the realm of the natural. As soon as the story returns to more conventional coverage — conversations are shot as either side by side walk-and-talks, or standard over-the-shoulder scenes — the tech begins to have an uncanny result. Out of focus objects and even extras far away begin to feel more important than they should; they look less like blurry background elements, and more like subjects with defined motion and trajectories. Most of the time, 120fps tends to flatten all motion and experience into a single, inextricable mass.
Take, for instance, this comparison of a scene from Sons of Anarchy, originally shot at 24fps, contrasted with a 60fps version via the aforementioned “guess frames” on the right:
The reduced motion blur brings the background elements into greater focus, especially as the camera tracks laterally. However, the effect it has on Jax Teller Charlie Hunnam is it robs him of the way he moves; his strut, which evokes a certain casual swagger, feels no different in HFR than any other lateral motion. The smoothness sands down the edges of his character.
In Gemini Manat 120fps, there’s no defining physical quality to Smith’s Henry Brogan. On paper, he’s a man weighed down by the guilt of his actions — something he talks about constantly — but he moves through space unburdened. In his hand-to-hand encounters, he doesn’t feel weighed down by age, even when fighting Junior, a clone of himself some twenty years his younger. The action scenes become videogame-like in a manner that doesn’t suit the story; these are real people who are meant to hurt and bleed, but physical impact has no “oomph” when it looks this smooth.
Of course, filming the running and action in HFR works in specific instances, like when both versions of Smith come up against a masked assailant bred for superhuman combat. This character feels almost ethereal, given the way he zips across the screen. He feels no pain and he’s even had his ability to feel emotions removed; he’s the perfect foil to both Henry and Junior, whose humanity is central to this story about breeding emotionless killing machines. In short, it works — but it also serves to highlight the majority of scenes where it doesn’t.
Similarly, a brief shot of Brogan’s comrade Baron Benedict Wong watching football/soccer looks perfectly natural at 120fps. The point of using HFR in sports broadcasting is to help viewers follow lateral movement at incredibly high speeds. If a film is built around lateral movement, then surely it’s worth a go; Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s The Tribe 2014 comes to mind, and I wonder what it might’ve looked like in HFR. Gemini Man, however, is rife with action scenes that move deeper into the frame, like POV shots of Brogan driving a bike as he chases down Junior. The evocation of videogame aesthetic feels almost intentional here, but first-person games having their environments entirely in focus serves to present the subject with a multitude of physical and visual options. In an action film, and especially in a chase scene, it only serves to draw the eye away from the subjects in question.
At one point during the chase, Brogan zips by a small Colombian café, and you can practically read the entire menu on the chalkboard outside. Most of the film’s exterior day scenes feel like tourism ads, and Junior, even when escaping by motorcycle, feels no different than any of the dozen or so vacationers in the distance. An aesthetic that brings all points of the frame into focus at once, regardless of the lens or shot in question, makes little sense when so much of the story is told from the perspective of an expert marksman.
While Gemini Man feels like the wrong venue for this technology, HFR gels much better with Lee’s previous effort, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The film is about a returning U.S. soldier, Billy Lynn Joe Alwyn whose hellish experiences in war don’t line up with how the world sees him. The people around him are constantly performing. The film is set during an NFL half-time show dedicated to the U.S. troops an explosive affair the PTSD-ridden Billy would rather not partake in and even backstage, characters like cheerleader Faison Mackenzie Leigh have duplicitous motives for trying to seduce him.
Between exposing the façade of military-worship and ening the reality of the fast-moving, split-second-decision war scenes, Lee finds plenty of adequate use for HFR in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. However, that it’s the overriding perspective and visual affect works to the film’s detriment. The 120fps still homogenizes every kind of movement, action and emotional expression, regardless of dramatic intent; where it exposes the lies of the people around Billy, it makes his own emotions feel calculated and dishonest, even in his private moments. The way it distances the world from him, it also distances him from us.
Other than the HFR 3D, a through-line between Lee’s Gemini Man and his Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is its focus on soldiers — specifically, on the psychological impact of soldiering, as forced upon them by America’s military industrial complex. The results vary — in Gemini Man, these ideas are expressed mostly in words — but the Taiwanese director has proven to be one of the more interesting visual storytellers dealing with modern American iconography. The problem, however, is that these types of stories often demand veering in and out of established perspectives. Doing so with a technology like HFR in its current form makes this rather difficult.
Henry Brogan is a god-tier marksman, which the opening scene of Gemini Man establishes with aplomb. But what toll this takes on his soul is a matter of intimacy, and all that HFR serves to do is shift the focus away from him when he tries to express it. Billy Lynn is inundated by façade at every turn; he’s emotionally assaulted by people who do not and cannot understand his psychology. But there are also moments when he’s around people that do understand — his fellow soldiers — and there remains a need to zero in on what that psychology actually is. At 120fps, it feels stable and smooth.
Like all cinematic tools, HFR will take time to perfect. It is not, however, like the advent of colour or synchronized sound, which sought to re-create the way we actually experience the world. It’s more akin to slow-motion. Not only technically — the effect is created by shooting at a higher frame rate, but playing the footage back at 24 or what have you fps — but in terms of being a specifically ening tool that draws attention to itself, rather than approximating reality. In which case, I have to wonder if the next phase of HFR in cinema is projection at variable frame rates. The technology already exists in editing softwares, and it would allow storytellers to use HFR not only sparingly, but only in the instances that require it.
Part of me wants to call time of death on 120fps cinema. Another part of me wants filmmakers like Ang Lee to keep pushing their experiments. His perspective on American masculinity makes him a vital voice, given that an increasing share of U.S. studio releases continue to be male-led action films.
While I’d never suggest watching a film like Lee’s Brokeback Mountain 2005 in HFR you can’t, though you can approximate it with “motion smoothing”, an image I keep returning to during this conversation is Ennis Del Mar Heath Ledger towering over his wife and child, and over the men he just assaulted, backed by red, white and blue fireworks on the Fourth of July.
People call Brokeback “the gay cowboy movie,” and while that’s often used as a dismissal, Lee’s tender relationship drama goes to great lengths to subvert a traditionally masculine American image, much the same way Gemini Man and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk attempt to. Were it possible, I’d love to re-watch Brokeback Mountain exactly the way it was shot, except for the fireworks scene. I can’t help but imagine what feelings that particular moment — the violent façade of tradition, brought into sharp focus using elements in the background and foreground — might evoke, in the uncanny hyper-reality of 120fps.