Gattaca (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 May (11.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been some brilliant films that depict a dystopian future, Blade Runner being the obvious example, Brazil another. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of stories though, because I like to hope that tomorrow’s generation will get to live in a world that hasn’t turned to shit – call me naive if you like, but I’d take the optimistic Star Trek vision any time, an Earth that has learned the lessons from its chaotic past and created a co-operative, positive future.

Still, some take the concept of a future shaped by present issues and created something really interesting with it. George Owell’s ideas, developed during the 1940s when Communism appeared to be a rapidly expanding, unstoppable force, beget 1984, imagining a nightmarish present where personal liberties, down to one’s very hopes and dreams, no longer exist. And then there’s Gattaca, made in 1997 when advances in our knowledge about DNA allowed for reproductive engineering and the possibilities of human beings ‘altered’ at their genetic level to remove all imperfections. That’s the very world it posits. In the future, humans fall into two groups – those born naturally, with all the defects that such a process entails, and the ones who have had all potential problems taken away. Such tampering leads to society containing two very distinct types of people. The ‘engineered’ are the supermen, taking the top jobs, given the best opportunities, considered for the space programme to explore Saturn’s moon, Titan. The ‘naturals’ take whatever’s left, constantly reminded that their place is and will always be somewhat less.

Enter Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) – naturally born, his parents told at birth that there’s a 99% possibility of him suffering from a heart condition when he’s older, constantly in the shadow of his younger, artificially idealised brother. Vincent doesn’t have much in terms of prospects, but what he does possess is ambition. Lots of it. Via the black market, he’s put in touch with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), someone with perfect DNA but confined to a wheelchair because he broke his back in an accident, and who is now prepared to ‘swap places’ with Vincent in exchange for money. This means Vincent taking Jerome’s identity, to painstaking levels, carrying sachets of his blood and urine so that he can pass the DNA tests, scrubbing himself clean of all loose skin and hair before he leaves the home so there’s less chance of anyone coming across evidence of his real status. And then he goes to work at Gattaca, a space flight organisation, posing all the while as a ‘Valid’, as Jerome. Quickly rising through the ranks due to sheer will and hard work, he is ultimately chosen to be the navigator on a planned trip to Titan.

Everything appears to be falling into place for Vincent, but the murder of a Gattaca administrator changes everything. An eyelash he accidentally sheds at the murder scene is discovered and identified, which makes him the main suspect, but nominally he’s okay as long as the tests for which he provides samples continue to ‘reveal’ him as Jerome. Even the fact the police (led by Alan Alda and Loren Dean) have a photo matters little, as test results count for far more than visual evidence. All the same, the number of tests increase, Vincent having to resort more and more to tricks in order to stay in the clear, whilst he senses the net closing in on him. He also falls in love with a co-worker, Irene (Uma Thurman), who has a heart condition that prevents her from entering the space programme, not realising that beneath his ‘borrowed’ identity Vincent has similar problems.

Gattaca was the debut directorial effort of Andrew Niccol, raised in New Zealand and better known at the time for his work in commercials. It wasn’t a box office success, but it had critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its art direction, which went a long way with its relatively small budget in creating a realistic near future world, in particular the austere, clinically clean interiors of Gattaca’s monolithic building. I’ve never been a real admirer of Ethan Hawke, finding him to be one of those actors whose range is too limited to be very interesting (surely the great charm of his work in the Before series is that he’s the bland everyman, and Julie Delpy the fantasy figure), yet he’s fine as the narrator-protagonist, with the cause for which he’s fighting – albeit a selfish one within an imperfect world – just about holding everything together. Far better is Law as the damaged Jerome. At the time he was best known for playing beautiful people, notably in Wilde, and there’s something innately tragic about his character in Gattaca, turning to drink and cigarettes after his accident and showing baleful levels of humour to mask the pain he’s been left in. Despite being disabled, Law provides all the life in his partnership with Hawke. Thurman on the other hand has little to do but look gorgeous. There are fine supporting performances by veterans Alda, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine. The latter stands out as Vincent’s supervisor on the cleaning rounds who later no longer recognises him when he’s in the guise of Jerome.

At the heart of Gattaca is its central conceit, an idea that at the time felt frighteningly credible and could yet become something like reality as health bills rise and solutions for diseases are sought. As entertainment it certainly works, suggesting an essentially paranoid future in which DNA checks are everyday occurrences, meaning that everyone is a prisoner of their own genes. The concept of a society every bit as discriminatory as anything we have today is fascinating, particularly as the disproportionate treatment echoes all manner of current prejudices and yet is one based on advances in science, which is supposed to be benign.

Gattaca: ***

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2 Replies to “Gattaca (1997)”

  1. Really, really liked this one when it came out (not least the great Michael Nyman soundtrack). I like Hawke here, but agree, he is mostly notable in Richard Linklater’s films (he is really good in a hard role in the director’s recent BOYHOOD).

    1. Thanks Sergio. I clearly forgot to mention the Nyman score, which is great and helps to make Gattaca look more lavish than it really is. I am yet to see Boyhood, though I’d really like to and I quite admire Linklater also.

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