Ang Lee wants you to see his movies more clearly than you’ve ever seen a movie before. Whether via a shot that seems to capture every individual face in a crowded football stadium or the image of an explosion that sends precisely detailed shards of glass and tongues of fire directly at the audience, Lee’s most recent films have found him exploring the outer limits of 21st-century filmmaking technology. With the 2016 drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the new Will Smith–vs.–Will Smith action movie Gemini Man, Lee has gone all in on high-frame-rate filmmaking, a technical innovation that offers images that feel more vivid and immediately present than traditional films. It’s a leap the moviegoing public has yet to embrace, due to two factors that feed into each other: the paucity of theaters equipped to exhibit his most recent movies in this format and a lack of enthusiasm for the few films released in HFR.
Gemini Man, Lee’s latest, premiered this Friday to largely unkind reviews and disastrous box office returns. Only a handful of moviegoers had a chance to see it in something approaching Lee’s preferred format, since only 14 U.S. theaters exhibited it in 120 frames per second 3-D (and none in 4K). Those who did, however, got a glimpse of why HFR holds such appeal to Lee, and why it made him turn to it for this story. Even if Gemini Man’s 120 fps 3-D doesn’t quite offset the film’s problems, its action scenes make the format seem like the right aesthetic choice for the better movie that might have been. And to be clear, Lee’s passion for HFR is not one he’s made merely from a technophile’s love of new toys; it’s part of a career-long desire to find new ways to tell stories.
That enthusiasm can be traced back to wires—or, more accurately, their absence. With 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee set out to make a traditional wuxia film on an epic scale, one that would appeal to worldwide audiences. (The plan worked brilliantly in the West—winning widespread acclaim and four Academy Awards, and earning over $200 million—though the film struggled to find a foothold with Asian audiences.) Promoting the film, Lee boasted of adhering to wuxia tradition in staging the film’s fight scenes, with one exception: He used computer effects to erase the wires that allowed his cast to perform superhuman acts of aerial combat, a choice that removed the last barrier separating the genre’s martial acrobatics from images seen only in dreams.
Since then, digital effects have remained on Lee’s palette. Most famously, they’re all over his unfairly maligned 2003 film Hulk, which used them to build a film around a believable, sympathetic digital character and to imitate comic book frames as a visual technique. Not every choice works, particularly a climactic fight filled with confusing, borderline abstract imagery, but every choice serves Lee’s storytelling impulses.
Since then, CGI has found its way even into Lee films that wouldn’t seem to require them. Brokeback Mountain (2006), for instance, is filled with budget-saving CGI sheep; the most memorable scene in the largely forgettable Taking Woodstock (2009) uses digital effects to simulate an LSD trip without resorting to now-clichéd images of lava lamps and strobe lights. In the 2012 film Life of Pi, Lee let shimmering digital oceans and CGI animals overwhelm the flesh-and-blood elements in a hugely successful adaptation of a novel others deemed unfilmable, earning his second Best Director Oscar for his efforts.
Lee also shot Life of Pi in 3D, a format then enjoying a post-Avatar bump in popularity. As Lee tells it, however, he made the choice not to follow trends but because the story required it. “I just couldn’t find the solution [to telling the story onscreen],” he told Vanity Fair in a 2012 interview, “so I thought with 3-D, with the water and the third dimension, you can feel like you are existing with Pi.” With his next film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he’d test out another distance-erasing tool—one whose potential he’d have a harder time harnessing.
It’s easy to see the allure HFR holds for Lee, however mixed the results, and however rocky HFR’s history both in general and in the context of his Lee’s career.
Hailed by its champions as the future of film, HFR has struggled during an extended roll-out that suggests that that future has yet to arrive. For his three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson shot in 3D at 48 frames per second, double the 24 fps rate that’s been standard for decades, a choice Jackson talked up in interviews prior to the film’s release. “It’s like watching a movie where the flicker and the strobing and the motion blur what we’ve been used to seeing all of our lives—I mean, all our lives in the cinema—suddenly that just disappears,” Jackson told HuffPost. “And you’ve got this incredibly vivid, realistic looking image. You’ve got sharpness because there’s no motion blur.”
When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, hit theaters in 2012, however, neither critics nor audiences embraced the innovation. “The best way I can think to describe the quality of the 48 fps image in The Hobbit is this: It looks like an ’80s-era home video shot by someone who happened to be standing around on set while The Hobbit was being filmed,” Dana Stevens wrote in Slate. Others likened it to watching a video game or a filmed theatrical production. Jackson succeeded in his goal of creating crisper, more lifelike images but lost traditionally cinematic qualities in the process.
Jackson’s Hobbit films suggest that HFR squeezed out the qualities that made movies look like, well, movies. Too much realism is the natural enemy of illusion. Yet that also helps explain why Lee turned to HFR for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel about an Iraq War soldier contemplating his past and future while appearing in a Dallas Cowboys halftime show, a dubious honor he and the rest of his company receive after a film crew captured their acts of valor. Over the course of the film, the introspective Billy (Joe Alwyn) finds himself overwhelmed by his surroundings, flashing back with increasing frequency to his time in Iraq, including the traumatic battle in which he tried, but failed, to save his beloved philosophical squad leader Shroom (Vin Diesel).
Ahead of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’s release, Lee told The New York Times that he turned to HFR after growing frustrated with 24 fps filmmaking while working on the effects-heavy Life of Pi, complaining that motion blur frequently obscured the performances of his cast. Working again in 3D, Lee shot in a faster frame rate than any feature film had been shot before: 120 fps. It made sense as an attempt to solve a technological problem, and it made artistic sense too. HFR allowed for an immersiveness that put viewers shoulder-to-shoulder with the protagonist, capturing every detail he experiences, whether it’s joining Destiny’s Child onstage, listening to his sister (Kristen Stewart) plead that he seek psychiatric help for PTSD to avoid returning to active duty, or reliving the memory of taking a life in hand-to-hand combat. It also flattened out the distinction between the homefront and the front lines, treating Billy’s life in both locations with the same unblinking gaze from which seemingly no detail escapes and suggesting the hypersensitivity described by real-life Iraq War veterans attempting to readjust to life at home.
It was a daring experiment that was met with two problems. Only five theaters in the world had the technology to exhibit it in 120 fps 3D with 4K resolution, Lee’s preferred format. What’s more, only one Dallas theater showed it in 120 fps 3D with 2K resolution, and only a handful of theaters in major cities projected the film in 120 fps 2D. Most of those who watched it saw it projected at 24 fps, which defeated the purpose of shooting in HFR in the first place. Even then, few saw it at all. (A resident of Chicago, where it never played in 3D, I missed it during its brief theatrical run. I watched it later on 2D 4K HD Blu-ray, which plays the film at 60 fps, probably the closest a home viewer without a 3D TV can get to the intended theatrical presentation. Even so, it doesn’t match descriptions of the theatrical experience; Blank Check cohost Griffin Newman described the opening shot as feeling as if “my personal space was being violated.”)
That raises the other, bigger problem with Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk: It’s easy to appreciate in concept but makes for bumpy viewing. The film contains some stunning visuals: fireworks erupting in the stadium as Billy and his company find themselves surrounded by entertainers, a view of the crowd from a skybox, a close-up shot that captures Steve Martin’s face with startling detail. When violence erupts, whether on the battlefield or in the stadium, it has an unsettling immediacy. In Lee’s hands, HFR’s you-are-there effect can feel otherworldly, offering so much vivid realism that it can start to feel unreal. Or, as Lee described it to Deadline at the time: With 120 fps, “It’s not a movie anymore.”
That’s not always an advantage. While HFR makes some moments remarkable, it makes more traditionally movielike moments seem stilted. Alwyn and Stewart are both remarkable actors, but their scenes together have a caught-on-a-security-cam flatness that makes it seem as if we’re watching rehearsal footage for a real movie to be filmed later. Lee’s decision to edit sparingly and largely eschew score music contributes to that feeling. In Time, Stephanie Zacharek offered a representative complaint, calling it “a story enslaved by a director’s approach rather than served by it.” Yet, for all its awkward moments, the film picks up a cumulative power. Its oddness and intimacy add up to an experience like no other (even when watching on a high-frame home video format). It’s one few got to experience in full, and confused many of those who did.
Undaunted by Billy Lynn’s critical and financial shortfall—it vanished from the year-end awards conversation as quickly as it disappeared from theaters—Lee pressed on with Gemini Man. The films stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan (a role reportedly almost taken by everyone from Mel Gibson to Clint Eastwood over the course of the film’s long development), an elite assassin we meet taking out a target on a fast-moving train from a great distance. Deciding to retire, the 51-year-old Henry finds himself troubled by loose ends from his final job, and by fellow spies sent to take him out. But none proves more troubling than the one he can’t quite defeat: Junior, a clone of himself who’s half his age.
This sets up Gemini Man to be a probing exploration of Will Smith’s stardom and how his persona has changed over the years, In other words, pitting what we expected of Smith as he left the Fresh Prince era behind and became a movie star versus what we expect of him now, after years in which he’s both stretched himself as an actor and developed into a more sullen action movie presence than the Smith of Bad Boys and Men in Black. That never materializes, however, in part because the CG effects used to create Junior look OK as long as the character remains in the shadows but borderline disastrous when he steps into the light. (Though Smith served as a model for the character, it’s an almost entirely CG creation closer to the “Peter Cushing” and “Carrie Fisher” of Rogue One than to the unnervingly convincing deaged Samuel L. Jackson seen in Captain Marvel.) It never feels like Smith is meeting himself; rather, it’s as if he’s confronting some uncanny-valley avatar of the man he used to be.
The clone Smith is virtually all that sets the film’s plot apart from the familiar tale of a spy who finds retirement more dangerous than staying on the job. The HFR serves the story of a man trained to take in every detail of his surroundings, and allows viewers to do the same. It also serves the story of a spy who’s trying to leave a life of killing behind him that supplies the violence action fans crave (within the limits of its PG-13 rating) while using the stunning clarity of its technological choices to ask if they really want to be this close to the action. The tech stands out in two daring setpieces—a stunning motorcycle chase through the streets of Colombia and a fight in Budapest’s catacombs—that are unlike those in any other movie. The overall experiment may fizzle, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying.
That also doesn’t mean it might not end up being a dead end. Lee is said to be interested in using HFR for his long-gestating film about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” fight, an approach that, based on Gemini Man, would undoubtedly allow him to stage fight scenes of incredible intensity. As for the rest of the scenes, Gemini Man offers some caution. The incredible clarity allows for, well, incredible clarity. But it also makes it hard to sink into the film. Though Lee shoots and edits Gemini Man far more traditionally than Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, its nonaction scenes still have a distancing too-real feeling: The actors seem too present and the surroundings too tangible for it to seem like a movie, or at least a movie as we’ve come to know it over the last 100-plus years of filmmaking. Lee’s 21st-century films have repeatedly used emerging technology not for its own sake but to find new ways of telling stories. But it’s possible some tech may not be of much use when it comes to storytelling.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.