"Gattaca" is a curious hybrid, with a story that encapsulates its theme in every movement, in the densest sense of Hollywood classicism, yet it is captured in the amber of a look as glassy and monumental as contemporary European art movies. Ethan Hawke is an outsider in a world a couple of centuries hence, a natural birth in a world of genetically engineered children. Vincent Freeman. Even the ironic name of this man -- Freeman -- who must fake his identity through complicated borrowings of another man's blood, DNA, urine, belongs in a world that is cool in two respects. First is writer-director Andrew Niccol's rigidly formal, deliciously piss-elegant direction is as determinist as the possible world he suggests; then expressive artifacts -- clothing, cars, houses, monuments -- belong in glossy magazines (such as wallpaper*) that celebrate the industrial designer as the great artist of the twentieth century. The future of "Gattaca" is as cold-blooded as the lobby of an expensive hotel or an airline terminal, or their breathless, transient populations.
By law, Freeman is among those left to the menial work. Society's elite are those who are the most genetically refined, but Freeman nurtures a dream to become an aerospace engineer for the Gattaca Corporation. Yet complications erupt in the final weeks before he can finally blast off a planet that has tried to dampen the unpredictable parts of human spirit. A romance with Uma Thurman follows, as well as a murder and an investigation by Alan Arkin, overseen by the patrician and plummy Gore Vidal as the team leader, wittily shown as the apotheosis of genetic perfection.
A 33-year-old New Zealand native, Niccol (whose first script, "The Truman Show," directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey, will appear this Christmas) has made a film the themes of which are so apparent, it's almost impossible to discuss them. Once you get beyond recalling the line in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves," you've summarized the movie and let the look of the film and Michael Nyman's sober, lucid score both wash over you. Some have rejected "Gattaca" out of hand as ponderous, suffocating artiness, but there are few themes where this burnished, serenely confident style could be more appropriate.
And design is something the quick-to-laughter Niccol can talk about at great length. Survival of the fittest or survival of the sleekest? Partly, the choice of looks for a futuristic movie is a matter of economics. When Godard created the future in 1963 Paris for "Alphaville," he was working with no money. Niccol, working with $18 million and craftsmen such as cinematographer Slawomir Idziak ("Blue," "The Double Life of Veronique") and production designer Jan Roelfs ("Orlando"), had more options than Godard had, but still uses buildings and products from all parts of the century, from Studebaker Avantis to Barcelona chairs, a spartan yet eclectic look of great character. Niccol piles on the research with "notebooks this high," sharing sketches, photos and other citations with his technical crew, amending his words on the page with something concrete.
"I think [Idziak, Roelfs and Nyman] were simply attracted by the material," Niccol says. "Just intrigued by the story. They trusted me enough. But I would talk to Jan and to Slawik in very specific terms. The first time Jan and I met, we were talking about cars. We both had the Avanti in mind. It's funny, if you look at the Studebaker catalog, you see these round features, familiar car shapes, then they obviously gave it to [leading industrial designer] Raymond Loewy and it becomes this strange, angular futuristic Jetson car. You keep turning the pages and about three pages later? Back to the soft curves."
One of the key locations of the movie is California's Marin County Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. "We used the building exterior and some corridors. This was Frank Lloyd Wright's last building. The great thing about the 1950s when this was built was that in this period when everyone was optimistic about the future, it was going to be wonderful. There is a triumphant, almost heroic look to the building. It's almost entirely made up of curves and Jan and I liked it. To imagine this world that is so pristine, there should be no corners. Dirt has no place to hide. It was just something for us to hang on to. I didn't want to be so futuristic, either, that people would just check out, saying this has nothing to do with me."
The choice of smaller design elements also fascinated the former commercials director. "It was a sort of arrogance on Jan's and my part to decide what belonged in the future. The challenge of science fiction is deciding [the articles of daily life], what is the phone in the future, are there phones in the future? You could build it yourself, but I'm actually glad I didn't have a lot of money. There's a scene where the broker of identities walks into the apartment and he's meeting Vincent for the first time. In the original script, he was going to come in with the beautiful streamlined computer tablet that had a list of all his applicants but I couldn't afford to do it. Someone said, 'why don't you just use a Newton?' and I said, [laughing] 'No, I will not!' It forced us to come up with a different solution, which was vials of blood in this billfold, which is far more visceral, more poetic. Some directors are not open to accidents. But I think I like them."