I didn’t feel the need to rush out and see this one when it came out two weeks ago. For one thing it didn’t seem all that interesting a premise to me, or more to the point it wasn’t one that grabbed me. I’ve seen The Sixth Day after all. Will Smith while talented yes, has been almost as flat as Bruce Willis of late with an intent or direction to become this stoic thing, Aladdin being an exception. Ang Lee while amazingly gifted is often hit or miss with his visual style compared to that of traditional western directors. Granted all his Academy Awards and the various nominations for such awards; little films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life of Pi, and Brokeback Mountain. Still with that kind of pedigree it was not a very grabbing movie in premise or look. $138 million put into its production budget and only a $30 million haul domestically so far says I am not the only one who felt that way.
Were we wrong?
I kind of broke protocol for myself on this one and watched a handful of reviews of it and thought of some of the points of discussion around it. The biggest point of contention is the fact that the film is shot in 120 frames per second, or FPS. What does that mean exactly? Well the average movie you watch is filmed in 24 fps, so when you increase the frames per second this means more detail is coming in, more subtlety of motion, even the way light reacts to the objects in frame changes at higher frame rates. 120 FPS looks great for slow motion as when you crank it down to 24 FPS where film is normally watched everything is moving significantly slower and you still get all the details in the frame. All. Of. The Details.
Does everyone reading this remember The Hobbit movies? They were filmed at 48 FPS. Remember how weird it looked? How off the lighting and costuming looked at times? Even the shot blocking was weird from time to time. This is due to the higher frame rate picking up details. There’s apparently some shots that had to be fixed in post production significantly because you could see the marks from the blocking on the floors where the actors were to stand. Every single detail becomes that much more crisp in 48 FPS. So what does a movie shot in 120 FPS look like?
I wish I could tell you, most theatres don’t even have the equipment to show a film in that degree of quality. My own was showing it in 3-D and 60 FPS, so a 20% increase over the Hobbit in frame rate and it looked…interesting. Daylight sequences appeared as if they were shot on green screen, yet shots on the open water the water was so pristine, so crystal clear it looked more real than I have ever seen. Action scenes, however looked different. They often benefit from a bit of motion blur, a bit of over or under cranking the camera, which is changing the FPS it is being displayed at. Filming at 120 already and displaying in 60 doesn’t give you any room to hide any flaws; but with Ang Lee directing they aren’t there in those shots.
There is a surrealist yet near photo real quality the movie brings, but some of that comes from the usage of post production color correction to bring up all of the colour values brighter and sharper for the benefit of the overall look. Many of the reviewers I checked out talked about how the high frame rate made the movie look cheap. I have to disagree. It made everything look cleaner. There was something just off true, but not enough to distract me as I was focusing on taking in all of those details. There were some unfortunate details true. There was an unusual desire to take close up shots, but have the eye lines just left or right of center rather than focusing on the audience.
Beyond the FPS the movie had one other major feat. Young Will Smith vs 51 Year old Will Smith. I understand they invented new software for this and it showed. Granted the high frame rate as mentioned left it feeling off in it’s own way, but if you moved past that and focused on the details of the digital work on the younger Will Smith it was damn near perfect. We aren’t talking the Moff Tarkin or Leia in Rogue One, the nightmare fuel Bridges from Tron, or even young Michael Douglas in Ant Man – this is just amazing. Not quite perfect, but full on deep fake levels of skill and quality that are uncanny.
I could talk about the plot by David Benioff (Game of Thrones) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps, Shazam!), with Billy Ray (Overlord, The Hunger Games) getting an additional credit on the screenplay. It’s about as bare bones as it gets with nothing really gained or given beyond what was revealed in the trailer. Nothing special to the dialogue, nothing special to the overall plot. I can see how much Benioff had to do with it as there are some really bad editing choices and places where the story just seems to forget how normal conversation works.
The acting from Will Smith is fine. Just fine. Its solid and almost perfunctory from him. If anything I did more or less feel he was embodying the role of someone who was trying to retire from the life. Benedict Wong as his friend Baron doesn’t get nearly enough to do. The breakout performance for this movie is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Thing 2011). She is *not* the strong female lead in a movie. She’s just a good character played perfectly.
If you did not see this – you did not miss much to be honest. Its a solid OK, but mostly saved by the high frame rate and visuals for me. I don’t think audiences are ready yet for this as a regular technique, but until its pushed until it’s tested and used over and over again it won’t get better. From a technical perspective this movie is setting a bar for de-aging techniques and having two characters in the same frame and interacting and it looking good. For cinema to go anywhere we need people to continue to push the boundaries. As much as I dislike Nolan his technical proficiency raises the bar for everyone else. Ang Lee here shows some of the potential of the medium and also what can happen with time and practice.
I just wish it had been on a better movie as the studios will once again take the wrong lesson. They will take away that high frame rates and digital technology aren’t worth the investment, but they would be wrong. They are worth it. You have the tech in place now. It only gets cheaper with usage and development. You will make this something that gets better and bring people in just as James Cameron did with Avatar and 3-D.
A technically proficient director with vision, clarity, a *very* basic budget and a budget will do wonders.
Just not with this one.
Should I see it?
I want to say yes, but only if you fit two categories. 1 you can see it in the high frame rate. 2 you are a cinemaphile who is going to eat that up like Saturday morning cereal.
Would you see it again?
Yeah, but again with someone else and those two criteria in play. Also my girl crush on Winstead.
Well, I have a 4K TV, so yes. It *should* look lovely on that without motion blur and just be a smaller version of the cinematic experience.
Anything else to add?
Why did it have to be this plot? It was so uninspired and Lee’s direction of Smith and or Smith’s performance were so…meh through the majority of the movie its hard not to be bored. You should not be bored during a big budget action movie.