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
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.