Cinema is not immersive. Cinema is voyeuristic, not participatory, and that’s part of what defines it. We are looking in through a window at a story, but we are not in the story, we’re not in the room, we don’t feel the heat of the explosion. We can imagine these things – great filmmakers will invoke sensations in us, will make us imagine smells or textures – but we don’t experience them.
Cinema happens at a remove, and that remove is what allows us to be even more immersed in the storytelling than if it was actually immersive. The gap between what we experience and what we imagine is where magic happens, it’s what makes the moviegoing experience so special. It’s the same kind of magic you get reading a book; there are small places where your mind gets to create connections and those are the alchemical spots, the places where the lead of 24 still images a second is transformed into the gold of a truly moving, life-changing artistic experience.
It’s more real than reality.
Enter High Frame Rate (HFR) filmmaking. First championed by Peter Jackson with his Hobbit movies, the baton has been picked up by Ang Lee, who has now made two films in the format. His latest, Gemini Man, is in theaters now – although it won’t be for long, as this terrible movie is tanking at the box office. I didn’t make it to a 120 fps screening (I didn’t even know there was one available in LA until after I had seen the film), but I did manage to see it in a 60fps 3D presentation, closer to Lee’s vision than a regular screening. Ten minutes in I was squirming in my seat. It looked awful.
First things first: why is it that the HFR movies seem to also not be very good movies? The Hobbit films are lowlights in Jackson’s career, and I’ve never even sat through the entirety of the third one. I left the theater when it played at Butt-Numb-A-Thon so many years ago, just unable to deal with the tedium of what Jackson had done to Tolkien’s whimsical bedtime tale. And Gemini Man is not much better; a throwback to a thankfully-dead style of 90s action-thrillers, Gemini Man is a boring exercise in characters coming to figure out what we already know from the trailers. If you’ve seen the Gemini Man trailer I guarantee you can imagine literally every single beat in this film. There’s not a single surprising or interesting moment in the thing, and almost everyone involved gives career-worst performances. Mary-Elizabeth Winstead is at a regional theater level, and Will Smith barely gets by on his charm, although his performance as the young clone, Junior, is awful. Benedict Wong actually comes out the other side okay, playing a truly unforgivingly dumb sidekick role but having a nice time with it.
The de-aging is iffy as well; while some of the scenes – especially the “dramatic” ones – come off well, Junior’s lips never feel quite right, and there’s always a Red Dead Redemption-y emptiness to his facial expressions. He’s too smooth, and in scenes where he’s interacting with real humans (Junior is not really a de-aging, he’s a fully CG creation performed via mocap) he’s so clearly not real that it’s distracting.
So the movie is no good, but boy does it look terrible! The HFR gives everything the chintzy look of a British soap opera. That has become the default way of describing this, right? I spent some time zoning out during the movie trying to figure out what else HFR looks like. I decided the flat, video look combined with the startlingly inert staging of the frame reminded me of the ouevre of Neil Breen (Fateful Findings), but that’s a little obscure, so let’s stick with British soaps. Or maybe a particularly poorly photographed episode of DeGrassi.
What’s astonishing is that the movie is clearly expensive. Millions and millions of dollars were spent on this, the crew traveled the world, cutting edge CGI was used, and it all looks – in the HFR 3D version, at least – like something put on by community players. The HFR destroys the scope and scale of places; it reminds me of the difference between what I see with my eyes and the image that my cell phone camera captures. I have the iPhone 11r, which captures 4K video, but what I shoot never has the grandeur of what I see. It looks like what I see, technically. It is capturing the image with phenomenal clarity, but it’s never as imposing or as beautiful as what my eyes and brain perceive.
Cinema is like the eyes and brain; it’s not showing us the strict reality of the thing, it’s showing us the essence and meaning of the thing. It’s translating the thing for us. I’ve talked to enough cinematographers to know that sometimes when you shoot a real object or location it just doesn’t look right – despite using the real thing it kind of looks fake. They have to gussy up a prop or redress a location to make it look, on film, like the thing it actually is.
I thought about this a lot looking at sparks in Gemini Man. There are quite a few sparks in this film, and every time they showed up they had no oomph. They looked slight and more like flash paper exploding than some furious spray of fire. That’s what sparks look like in real life, but when I’m watching an action movie about a man fighting his own clone I kind of want my sparks to have pizzazz. Michael Bay gets what sparks should look like in the movies.
Gemini Man is so real looking in HFR that it circles right back around to being fake. You can see the acting happening before you; the clarity lays every falsity bare. Actors who are trained to act for the camera are caught in a situation where they’re actually acting in a close-up performance. It’s the difference between doing the work on a stage and doing the work in the crowd in an interactive theater piece.
And that’s because this is what HFR is good for. The way the motion works, the stark reality of the image it produces, is not good for cinema, which demands a distance and a heightened reality. It’s good for something immersive.
Watching Gemini Man’s occasional first-person POV scenes, I realized that HFR is for VR goggles. It’s for visual experiences where you’re not watching the action, you’re in it. The smoother motion of HFR eliminates the barrier between viewer and image, and that’s perfect for something like an immersive virtual experience. The more real that image is, the better.
But for cinema something else is needed. Reality is secondary; truth comes first. And truth is not always reflected in reality. We’re sitting in a seat in a movie theater – we know we’re not running down a street in Cartagena with Will Smith. The idea that this image should look lifelike is, frankly, weird. It should look good, it should look cool, it should look strong in a way that will evoke an emotional reaction, but looking lifelike is at best a tertiary concern. It shouldn’t look fake (unless it should – see animation, or puppetry,) but absolute fidelity to reality is the last thing we want. That extends to the tiny details – as pictures get clearer we begin to see the pores of actors, notice the make-up, see the foam nature of the props, and the gods on the screen get hobbled down to mere humanity.
The reality of HFR is at odds with cinematic language as well. Watching at 60fps in 4K, seeing the clarity and the smoothness, only calls attention to the artificial nature of cinematic language. Editing becomes jarring; the effect works best in long shots, where we have a chance to sink into the reality onscreen. But more than that flourishes become silly; I burst into laughter the first time Ang Lee brought his action into slomo because the whole thing was rendered ridiculous. It was like watching Will Smith pantomime slow motion. Having just caught The Matrix in a 4K rerelease recently I can tell you this wasn’t because of some bias against slomo.
HFR is simply anti-cinema. It’s puncturing the dream that lies at the heart of the cinematic experience. That’s fine, and I think there are a lot of applications of the frame rate in a world where screens are becoming ever more omnipresent. I just don’t think that place is “the movies,” and I’m baffled that some of our genius filmmakers are so set on bringing HFR into the standard cinematic experience. Maybe they’re just bored of the movies; maybe Peter Jackson is ready to move on to the next thing, to pioneer the next form. That’s cool! But it’s not the movies.
Maybe that’s why these movies are so bad – the geniuses behind them are simply not interested in the medium anymore. They don’t want to tell stories this way, but they’re trapped in the form. If that’s the case I’m all for them no longer making movies and instead blazing new paths in new mediums, taking their interest in battering down the wall between audience and image into the arenas where it works. I’m excited for an Ang Lee immersive VR experience, where he can merge his interest with tech with his ability to tell an emotional story. Let him invent a lucid dreaming storytelling medium, one where the audience is an active participant. That’s cool! But keep the flicker in my films, allow me to maintain the casual distance of the cinema. Let me keep my reality heightened. Let me keep my open-eyed dreams alive.