Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke, narrates a childhood during which he, as an invalid, would swim out to sea with his brother to see who could go the furthest. His brother, Anton (Loren Freeman) would win every time because he’s genetically perfect. Vincent on the other hand is plagued with the flaws of a natural birth.
Gattaca depicts a world in which children are genetically engineered with all of the attributes and immunity that their parents request. Everything including our date of death is filed away, and everybody is closely monitored. When the two brothers are older, Vincent challenges his brother to one last swim. This time, against all statistical odds, he beats his brother. It’s an impossibility that highlights the entire film’s trajectory going forward. We’re following a man who has a dream and, unthinkable though it may be, aims to achieve it by any means necessary. It’s an underdog story wrapped inside of a science-fiction tale about a near future that’s grim, cold and alarmingly foreseeable.
Director Andrew Niccol weaves fine details into what amounts to a procedural, neo-noir yarn that uses its search for a murderer as tablesetting for a character drama in which one man adopts the identity of another in order to achieve his goals. Vincent and Jerome (Jude Law) come to a mutually beneficial agreement. Jerome, a valid like Vincent’s brother who could achieve anything he wanted at one time, lost the use of his legs after a car incident. Miserable and alone, he sells his worth to a man who couldn’t possibly aim any higher than a life cleaning toilets. The two gradually develop a greater bond.
Vincent is a deeply sympathetic character prior to landing a place at the Gattaca Aerospace Centre. He’s treated lesser by everybody including his father, who couldn’t bare to give his name to a child who was imperfect and genetically incapable of living into his thirties. We’re taken briskly through Vincent’s childhood and young adult life where we see him and other invalids subjugated and discriminated against. As Vincent narrates, they have it “down to a science.” We have to wonder why any parent would subject a child to such a disadvantage from birth. The implication of the alternative though is an evolving moral debate.
Vincent suffers greatly to get to Gattaca, though once he’s in he brims with the confidence and arrogance of a man that might actually belong there. He fits into another man’s clothes very comfortably. On the other hand, he’s living proof that, engineered at birth or not, a person can achieve anything through sheer stubborn force of will. Physically disadvantaged though he may be, his resolve is firm and his intellect unquestionable. Against all manner of adversity, he makes his dream a reality. Though he’s not as careful as he thinks he is despite the lengths to which he goes to in order to protect his secret. As Irene (Uma Thurman) puts it, if he wants people to think he doesn’t care than he should stop watching the skies.
The world of Gattaca does not endorse creativity, or eccentricity, nor does it allow much leeway for personality. Identity is secondary to the list of attributes someone is given at birth, which is a terribly crippling prospect. This is a society in which people can check the attributes of a potential romantic partner using a strand of their hair before committing to a relationship. It’s apt, if not very subtle, that Vincent’s dream is to literally reach for the stars. It defines his character, as well as his view of the grim, aesthetically unkempt world he lives in. Niccol nails the tension when it’s needed, and it’s needed so sparingly that it works every time. When Vincent’s vision fails him and he has to cross a highway bustling with traffic, it could seem like a contrived injection of drama. Yet it’s the nature of Vincent’s existence, the truth of the matter that a single slip up could expose him and bring an end to the charade that gives weight to even menial moments of what might count as forced drama in a less befitting screenplay.
There’s a dulcet pace to Gattaca, which is at its best when it’s exploring the relationship between the two men at its center. Jerome is a heartbreaking character. His depression, exhaustive alcoholism, and fiery temperament paint the picture of a man who, thanks to society, was led to believe he’d have everything. There is as it so happens, only so far that genetic engineering can go to diminish the brutality of chance. The juxtaposition between the two characters is again less than subtle, but played with the right amount of sincerity and the film doesn’t bog itself down with clever contemplation.
Like Blade Runner before it, Gattaca is a simple tale told in a rich, bleak, noir-drenched world that we’d rather not inhabit. Niccol’s direction and Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography isn’t particularly stylish, and yet the film’s imagery is resonant. Narration is often tricky, though here it’s used sparingly and effectively and, despite some hefty philosophising done by its protagonist, doesn’t crumble into hyperbole. It is ultimately a tale about the unwavering human spirit, told within a world that’s become devoid of emotion and meaning. An optimistic view of it all might be that despite the degradation of human identity, our fate is still, even here, ultimately in our own hands. That’s true for Jerome who makes one final decision for himself, and it’s true for Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley), who at the close of the film makes a crucial choice of his own.
As a dystopian view of the future, Gattaca harbours much of what the science-fiction genre can offer. Despite failing at the box office, it found support at the time among critics and has gone on to develop something of a cult status. With powerful performances across the board from its leads, its icy exterior and hefty moral debate makes for difficult but rewarding viewing. It’s a film that, at twenty-one years of age, has only become more relevant with the passage of time; an identifying mark of a classic piece of science-fiction, neither perfect nor flawed, but certainly prescient and enduring, like the very best examples of the genre tend to be.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8.5/10