Gattaca (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to the 21st Century, an era when things aren't that much different, but people are. No longer is standard procreation the accepted way to reproduce. Consider all of the birth defects that such an approach can bring about. And, while it would be unreasonable to outlaw sex for the purpose of producing offspring, be aware than any children so conceived are almost certain to be "in-valids" -- genetically imperfect and ill-suited to be productive members of society. There is a better, more rational way -- a method that will guarantee health, stamina, and physical attractiveness. Let science do a little tinkering with the DNA. Everyone does it. Or at least everyone who wants their child to have a shot at a normal, well-adjusted life.

This is the chillingly feasible premise of Gattaca. While in 1997, science has not yet perfected the genetic engineering techniques used in this film to routinely develop babies, every day brings the medical profession closer. As a result, Gattaca doesn't just function as a science fiction thriller, but as both a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting scientific ability outstrip ethics and as a morality play about the irrationality of bigotry.

Andrew Niccol's oppressive future, which contains more than an element of Orwell's "Big Brother is watching" mentality, isn't just a clever backdrop against which to set a thriller. Instead, it's an integral part of the story. While it's true that there is a murder mystery, that's just a subplot. The main focus of Gattaca is the struggle of a genetically inferior man, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), to survive and prosper in a world where his kind is routinely discriminated against.

Shortly after they were married, Vincent's parents decided to start a family the old-fashioned way, without any help from doctors and test tubes. The result was a boy who was diagnosed as 99% likely to have a serious heart defect. That rendered Vincent ineligible for all but the most menial of jobs. But his dream was to one day work at The Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and participate in the first-ever manned flight to the moons of Saturn. For most "in-valids", this would have remained a fantasy, but Vincent possessed the determination and drive to make it real.

With the help of a shady middle-man, Vincent locates Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a genetically superior individual who was paralyzed as the result of an accident. He agees to sell Vincent his identity (including blood and urine on demand, fingerprints, hair and other body debris, etc.). So, equipped with Jerome's genetic resume, which guarantees him work anywhere, Vincent applies for a position at Gattaca. He is accepted and quickly proves his worth to everyone. But, a week before he is to attain his lifelong ambition of making a space flight, he becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and his carefully-guarded secret is in danger of being exposed.

One of the things that impressed me the most about Gattaca is its ability to keep the level of tension high without compromising the script's intelligence or integrity. First-time director Andrew Niccol, a New Zealander working in Los Angeles, displays a sure hand in his execution of the material. One scene in particular, a masterfully-edited sequence cutting back and forth between the cops (who are closing in) and a man struggling to accomplish a Herculean physical task, is guaranteed to render audiences breathless. And there are enough little twists and turns to keep even the most easily-distracted audience member involved. From a visual perspective, Niccol's cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, uses his trademark filters to differentiate the soft, warm glow of the outside world from the harshness of the windowless interior of Gattaca.

Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise) is solid as Vincent, effectively portraying both his single-minded determination to rise about the disadvantages of his birth and his constant wariness of being caught once he has reached that goal. Jude Law's Jerome is a fascinating individual -- a man who is torn between despising Vincent because of his inferiority and admiring him because he's succeeding. In fact, Jerome is arguably Gattaca's most complex character. Meanwhile, Alan Arkin gives a delightful turn as a hard-bitten detective. Uma Thurman's limited range isn't taxed as Vincent's love interest (there isn't much chemistry between her and Hawke, but, since romance is a tertiary element of the story, it doesn't make much difference). And Loren Dean (the title character in Billy Bathgate) plays a cop with a special grudge against Vincent.

The average thriller, even if it's set in a faraway or futuristic world, tends to offer visceral, ephemeral excitement, and not much else. However, while Gattaca has the energy and tautness to compare with the best of those, its thought-provoking script and thematic richness elevate it to the next level. Gattaca is not a perfect motion picture (I would have appreciated a little more political background), but, at a time when so many science fiction films are dumber than dirt, it makes for a refreshing change-of-pace, and is a fine addition to the Fall movie season.

Gattaca (United States, 1997)

Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak
Music: Michael Nyman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1997-10-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1