Gattaca (1997) dir. Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman
One of the great underrated science fiction films of the past 20 years is Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” – part existential sci-fi part, neo-Noir, part melodrama. Niccol presents a unique vision of the future examining the effect of genetic engineering on the social disparity of the human race. At it’s core it’s about the triumph of the human spirit against the absolutes of science.
The film is narrated by Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) a young man who has been burdened with being born ‘naturally’ – that is a normal sperm-egg childbirth. In this future though, mating is achieved largely through artificial selection of gene manipulation to produce the most desirable and healthy babies. Vincent’s lifelong dream is to go into space, but his genetic deficiencies has prevented him from being considered for the esteemed Gattaca Academy.
Vincent decides to play a game of deception and pose as a genetic alphamale who can pass the scientific DNA test. Enter Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) – a DNA star, who has crippled himself before achieving the greatness he was destined for. By way of a genetic agent, Vincent becomes Jerome. IDs are changed, urine tests faked, Vincent even has to undergo surgery on his legs to make him shorter. All of it works and Vincent is accepted into the astronaut training program. But when a murder occurs within the inner circle of the academy, Vincent’s real identity is threatened to be exposed.
The knock on Niccol, who also wrote “The Truman Show”, is that he lays his metaphors on thick and puts his message right in the audience's face. Indeed, Vincent’s last name Freeman, the double-helix staircase in Jerome’s apartment, and Vincent’s latent heart condition blatantly tells us the subtleties of his theme - that our bodies are greater than the sum of our individual parts. But part of the joy of the film is its sense of old-fashioned Frank Capra-esque values.
“Gattaca” is old-fashioned in its look as well. Niccols pays homage to “THX 1138” – both in design, tone and theme. George Lucas’s lo-fi sci-fi flick relied on retro production design, innovative sound technique and creative camera framing to create a future world on a low budget. Niccol uses the streamlined style of Frank Lloyd Wright as his design inspiration. In fact, many of the locations are Lloyd Wright buildings. Niccol even steals an exact location shot from Lucas – the staircase of the Gattaca building is directly out of Lucas’s underground city.
Though the film was made on a low budget Niccol expertly casts the film with unknown Jude Law as Jerome the co-lead. Without any film experience whatsoever Niccol’s risky casting choice was clearly an inspired one. Niccol also taps a sorely underused musical resource in Michael Nyman – Peter Greenaway’s frequent composer. Nyman’s music unabashedly sores helping the film reach its emotional climax with maximum impact. And even ten years later Michael Nyman is still one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood.
“Gattaca” tells big ideas in a small scale film. The message resonates well beyond the final credits. If you haven't seen it, you'll find yourself revisited this minor masterpiece again and again. Enjoy.
A new special edition of "Gattaca" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment