It’s often strange revisiting science fiction worlds when their time in the cultural milieu has
passed. They offer societies that are not too far off the center from our own. When the world has moved on to larger, more bloated, computer generated spectacles, and even when the filmmaker has moved on to larger, more nuanced, projects there’s a quaintness to seeing an early work and the formation of a filmmaker before his entrance into the larger sphere of culture.
The work being spoken about here is from Andrew Niccol; who went on to make arguably one of Nicolas Cage’s best films, “Lord of War,” and then later to direct the abysmally turgid Stephenie Meyer adaptation of “The Host.” But “Gattaca” was Niccol’s debut as both a writer and director. The film itself seems to make a clear distinction of why Niccol was chosen to direct an adaptation of Meyer’s flimsy novel. “Gattaca” shares many of the same themes as “The Host,” though they’re rather untidy when those themes were implemented in the execution of the latter film.
Elegant and cool, “Gattaca” begins with a prologue detailing the life of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a genetic oddity whose life expectancy and chances of being diagnosed with all sorts of virulent ailments is detailed even before he is born. His parents, who conceived Vincent in Detroit, opt to have another son, but this time they go through genetic selection (a process that chooses the best materials in human DNA to make the perfect specimen from both parents’ genes). Vincent’s brother, Anton, is born. He’s superior in most physical aspects; athletic, confident and bold.
Vincent finds himself challenged by the prospect of living with his parents for another day after years of living in Anton’s existence; Vincent’s parents fully expect him to die at the age of 30 as foretold by genetic scientists that see Vincent’s expected life span as a concrete fact. He, however, has bigger dreams. Vincent’s interests lie in the stars; theoretical physics, space aeronautics and the prospect of rocketing off a planet that has deemed his kind of species, a person birthed by chance rather than design, obsolete.
When Vincent moves away he does a series of odd jobs, claiming to have cleaned half the toilet bowls in the city. He finally lands a janitorial job at the space conglomerate of Gattaca, housed in a building seemingly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Rigid security measures are placed to ensure that only these genetic superbeings have access to all the facilities inside Gattaca, and Vincent imparts that even with all the brains bequeathed to him, he’s still considered inferior: “We now have discrimination down to a science.” Vincent finds his way into Gattaca through a dealer that offers to help find a genetically superior being and syphon his DNA, skin samples and blood in order for Vincent to enter the facility without notice.
Thus, from this point on, Vincent Freeman is no longer himself, but Jerome Eugene Morrow. Niccol’s film, in hindsight, was fascinatingly prescient. “Gattaca” contains all the things good science fiction is made up of. Hawke and Jude Law, who plays the actual Jerome Morrow, bound to a wheelchair because of a broken back, both display quiet, dissonant performances that often resonate emotional relations quite well. Hawke gets caught up in a romance with Uma Thurman, a fellow employee of Gattaca, whose performance exhibits a similar reserve.
It’s when “Gattaca” gets caught up in the mystery thriller aspects in which the film begins to falter. The interest in the bioethics of genetic purity versus natural genetics comes into conflict – while a detail involving the death of a Gattaca employee comes into play and Vincent is pegged as a suspect – and Niccol often finds intelligent wrinkles to display that perfection is often subjective; that no matter how much intelligent design goes into making the most perfect of beings, those beings will still have faults that are as humane and commonplace as those who have not been created by meticulous design.
Even though it was released in 1997, the almost 20 year old film, “Gattaca” displays an advanced political and theoretical stance. The science presented in “Gattaca” no longer seems like fiction. While the ideas Niccol presents are provocative in their implementation, the noirish traits of the film remain often hastily applied. However so, “Gattaca” as a debut effort for Niccol is remarkable. When efforts such as Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium” often
seem to espouse science fiction ideas that seem revelatory, they are really harkening back to an age when “Gattaca” elevated a genre beyond kitschy effects and booming spectacle. Niccol’s film is poised, calculated and written with a distinct voice that states quite effectively perfection can’t beat the nihilistic terms selected by the natural world.
In a sense, “Gattaca” still informs many films ruminating on the effects of genetic engineering. Niccol’s film may seem cold and effusive in the beginning, but its graceful cinematography and well written script begin to beguile. Even like Vincent, who dreams that maybe if we are made of star matter, that his real home just might lie in the stars, away from a bitter Earth that might be considered brave and new for those with the properly designed genes. “Gattaca” is presented in
such captivating terms that it might even have others looking to the stars with a little more optimism.