Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Andrew M. Niccol

REVIEWED: 10-27-97

Only a few movies have managed to convey believably both the menace of a future society and the courageous resistance of some of its members. The rebellion portrayed is usually trite and cornball, an easy idealism that believes in the power of the human spirit over all threatening forces. There's a reason that the most compelling vision of the future in literature continues to be 1984--we know the deadening power of totalitarian bureaucracies too well to believe in simple escapes from them.

Gattaca's protagonist, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), dreams of a very literal escape; he's in training for a flight to one of Saturn's moons. In an age of instant DNA sequencing from any sample of tissue or bodily fluid, however, the only people admitted to the Gattaca corporation's space program are the genetically perfect, engineered in the womb. Vincent is a "love child" with a high probability of heart problems and early death, so he buys the identity of Jerome, physical paragon and certified genius. When one of the flight directors is murdered on the job, the physical evidence vacuumed up at the scene threatens to expose Vincent as an "in-valid" only days before takeoff.

The assumed-identity plot, with its threat of constant disaster hidden in Vincent's dead skin cells, is the consistently exciting part of Gattaca. Ethan Hawke, who has a tendency to overestimate his own charisma as an actor, is effective when restrained by a plot that requires him to blend into a robotic, homogeneous work force. The credit sequence shows Vincent's methodical daily preparation as he attaches fake fingerprints to his digits; a cache of Jerome's blood is hidden underneath for the instant blood test at the door, while Jerome's urine is strapped to his thigh for the unannounced sampling. Writer-director Andrew Niccol subtly evokes a whole society that trusts its computer identity checks more than its common sense. When the murder investigation reveals that in-valid Vincent is on the grounds of Gattaca, a futuristic corporation, detective Alan Arkin never thinks to compare his picture to the actual faces of employees, preferring instead to rely on a blood test.

Just as impressive is the production design, which reaches back to '50s automobile shapes and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture to create a look that we instantly recognize as futuristic precisely because it's retro. This device may be borrowed from Brazil--a future cobbled together from bits of old technology--but here it's given a streamlined, stratified look. Even the fuzzy, flickering computer screens have a subtext: No society has it all together when it can't solve the vertical hold problem.

Given these accomplishments, it's frustrating that Gattaca has such a simplistic, pop-psychological concept of Vincent's dream. For one thing, his escape is pretty selfish--he has no interest in standing up to the "genomists" who discriminated against him; he just wants to run away from them. Yet somehow the dream liberates everyone who touches Vincent, from Jerome to love interest Uma Thurman to the doctor who takes his urine samples. Just as we're getting excited about Vincent's identity crisis, just when the police are on his trail, the movie gets all misty about the power of the human spirit to overcome the determinism of our genes. Niccol probably thought this theme made his movie more than a mere thriller. But Gattaca already has the elements of an uncommonly good thriller without being made into a humanist manifesto.

Brazil says that our only escape is in our minds; 1984 says even that can be denied us. Gattaca sees our freedom in the stars--an idea that, like the movie's art decoration, comes straight from the golden age of science fiction. The only problem is, the movie doesn't understand we've outgrown that idea, and there's no going back.

--Donna Bowman


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