Film Review: Gattaca (1997)

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction was a long time ago. The period with the largest number of genre classics was roughly between mid 1960s and mid 1970s, and in that time many grand film makers approached science fiction not as an excuse for bug eyed monster, special effects or cute toy-selling aliens but actually as a genre of ideas. There were many attempts to restore that state of affairs to Hollywood and other parts of world cinema and the most persistent person in that effort was New Zealand film maker Andrew Niccol, best known as the screenwriter for The Truman Show. His directorial debut, 1997 film Gattaca for which also wrote screenplay, can be viewed as his most successful work.

The plot is set in not so distant future, when biotechnology advanced enough to make eugenics not only widely accepted as practical. With genetic screening parents can not only prevent their children from having any physical or mental impairments, but also enjoy benefits of genetic engineering and have perfect babies. The protagonist is Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke), young man who had misfortune of having parents who preferred conceiving child the old-fashioned way. Vincent grew up to be shortsighted, left-handed and having heart-condition that would make him “in-valid”, and as such considered burden or unacceptable risk compared with “valids”. Vincent, whose parents later decided to have another “valid” child, was confronted with the world of de facto segregation based on quality genome and his dream of flying to space was unfulfilled, with him forced to work as janitor in Gattaca Corporation. His luck changes thanks to Jerome Morrow (played by Jude Law), “valid” who became cripple due to traffic accident and who desperately wants to hide his imperfect condition from the rest of society. Vincent volunteers to take his identity, using his blood and urine samples to get a proper job in Gattaca Corporation and quickly advance in its ranks. He catches attention of Irene Cassini (played by Uma Thurman), beautiful co-worker who, despite “valid”, isn’t perfect enough for highest of corporate position. Situation gets complicated when one of corporation’s directors gets murdered and police investigation threatens to reveal his charade.

Despite being well-received by critics and its subject matter becoming relevant and much talked about after news about cloning of Dolly the Sheep, Gattaca failed at the both office. The reason for that failure is very simple – it had very little things to attract the average audience or viewers accustomed to science fiction as something closer to action or horror genres. The only thing that might have brought people to theatres was the characters that looked more physically attractive than usual (and, unlike most Hollywood films, here it had justification in the plot dealing with world obsessed with physical perfection). Gattaca was film destined to attract minority audience, those who liked to engage their brain while watching the film. Niccol delivered the goods by allowing debate between fate and free will and also by displaying world both very different and disturbingly close to our own, in which seemingly small technological advance could have far-reaching consequences and create another form of dystopia. Niccol tries to portray this future by sharp visual contrasts – protagonists are beautiful, but forced to conform to single ideal and wear almost identical clothes and have almost identical hairstyles. Sharp contrast is also achieved by cinematography by Slawomir Idziak which insists on cold interiors and warm sepia-toned exteriors. Niccol creates another contrast by having the future world look both futuristic (through brutalist architecture) and “retro” (in the form of electric cars in 1950s and 1960s styles). Effect is even better due to very good soundtrack by Michael Nyman.

The cast is also very good. Ethan Hawke handles his complicated role very well and has very good chemistry with Uma Thurman, with whom he began dating on the set before two of them becoming married couple. Jude Law is also good in one of his first major Hollywood roles. Supporting players are good, especially famed writer Gore Vidal in the role of corporate director. Gattaca is very good, but, like the protagonist, imperfect. The main flaw is the murder subplot getting in the way of the story and somewhat too convenient and too “soapy” motive of sibling rivalry which is resolved near the end in overmelodramatic way. Gattaca nevertheless deserves recommendation as piece of science fiction cinema that looks like it belonged to its Golden Age.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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