Next month, Will Smith’s set to fight his own younger clone in Gemini Man. Smith will be playing both parts in a concept that seems like it could have come straight out of the 90s – it’s a little bit The 6th Day, a little bit Double Impact, a little bit Face/Off, and even a little like the recent throwback Looper. It should come as no surprise, then, that the script was actually written in the 90s. In fact, the only real surprise here is that a film stuck in Development Hell for so long a period is actually being made at long last, and being made prestigiously at that, with Jerry Bruckheimer producing, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Life of Pi) directing and Will Smith giving a make-or-break effort to regain the action bankability he enjoyed throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Darren Lemke, a young screenwriter who would go on to pen DreamWorks’ animated features Shrek Forever After and Turbo as well as the superhero picture Shazam!, first sold Gemini Man to Disney back in 1997, along with another script. That other script, the similarly high-concept Undertow, dealt with the search for the black box after Air Force One is shot out of the sky, and still has yet to see the light of day; Lemke, throughout his career, would be no stranger to Development Hell, with his Jack the Giant Slayer script languishing for eight years. The idea back then was for Tony Scott to direct, fresh from the success of his Quentin Tarantino collaborations, True Romance and Crimson Tide; initially, Harrison Ford was to play the older clone and Batman Forever/Batman & Robin star Chris O’Donnell the younger one. At some point, however, the idea came about that CGI could be used to allow a single, bankable action star to play both parts; names tossed around included such macho favourites as Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight and Sean Connery. Disney had enough faith in the viability of this idea to create a test short, Human Face Project. It’s unknown whether this footage will ever see the light of day – home video special features-? – but on reflection, it’s likely a good thing the film was delayed back then. Remember such CG nightmares as The Rock’s shiny, PlayStation 2 face in The Mummy Returns? If Gemini Man had been made promptly, it would have been even older than that. And then reflect on the fact that these sorts of monstrosities are still happening. For every Hugh Jackman in Logan, there’s a Carrie Fisher in Rogue One.
Still, despite Disney being evidently unimpressed with the results of their initial experiments, IGN reported in 2000 that the film was set to be released in Summer of 2002, competing with Attack of the Clones. Shekhar Kapur was an unusual choice to direct, mostly known for his work in Bollywood as well as the historical biopic Elizabeth. Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the screenwriting team behind Ali, were hired to give it a polish. The next that was heard about the project was in 2009, when Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) was set to direct, with script doctoring this time coming courtesy of David Benioff. At the time, Benioff was a gun-for-hire, working on such generic Hollywood product as 25th Hour, Troy and X-Men Origins: Wolverine; now, he’s the co-creator of Game of Thrones and, interestingly, his name remains on the script Lee is directing, alongside that of Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Terminator: Dark Fate). Other writers to have polished the script included Jonathan Hensleigh (Jumanji) Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and Mystic River’s Brian Helgeland. Later, The Grey director Joe Carnahan became attached, lobbying hard for Clint Eastwood to play the lead, even creating a proof-of-concept short splicing together footage of an older Clint and his younger self from various different films.
Finally, in 2016, Skydance Media purchased the script and production began in earnest, with Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong among the supporting cast. Whether the film will turn out to have been worth it after all that remains to be seen – the longest stay in Hell is still that of John Carter, conceived in 1936 and released, to underwhelming reviews and box office, in 2012. Fingers crossed, Gemini Man will be closer to the Mad Max: Fury Road end of the spectrum, which spent near 20 years in Hell and quickly established itself as a modern classic.