Saturday, January 08, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Gattaca (1997)

In the first shot of Andrew Niccol's impressive Gattaca (1997), what appears to be an over-sized fingernail lands on a hard floor like some heavy-gravity chunk of ice or space rock.  

This Goliath is followed promptly by a tree-trunk sized strand of human hair, which also impacts with considerable force. 

These unusual images -- extreme close-ups, actually -- are captured in rich blue hues, and promptly followed by shots of a naked man (Ethan Hawke) scrubbing his body vigorously, attempting to leave behind the biological evidence of his real identity.

This memorable and highly cinematic opening sequence suggests a few important things. 

First, it suggests to the viewer that, as human beings, we are all the product of genetic blueprints, and that, given a certain set of circumstances (namely the future world imagined by Gattaca), that very blueprint could subvert or betray us.   

To wit, the film concerns a man who aspires to reach the stars, but who is held tightly to the terrestrial firmament below by his physical blueprint; by the fact that he does not possess the right genetic "code" for success. 

The discovery by Society-at-Large of something so simple as a fingernail or a strand of his hair could shatter this man's dreams of transcendence permanently.  So these falling objects -- the fingernail, the hair-strand -- literally "loom" over the man as giant threats.  The director's choice to present them as colossal juggernauts is a clever, intelligent and unconventional one.

Secondly, the blue light (and also the act of scrubbing) suggests sterilization of a sort; of rendering neutral or dead those things or elements that could potentially do harm.  The film's protagonist, Vincent (Hawke) must literally sterilize himself to be accepted in "valid" society.

He's sanding off parts of himself to fit in; to conform. 

On a more symbolic note, the blue light in this inaugural sequence suggests, at least to me, the sterile, somehow empty nature of Vincent's near-future world.  It is a place where all imperfections have been engineered out of the human organism. 

The result is a world that seems remote, lacking in the warmth, love and color we associate with everything that exists in the species today:  in our families, in our national discourse, in the pure diversity of our lives.  We may lead messy, chaotic lives of highs and lows, of bickering and compromise, but that's the human equation, isn't it?  To clean that up -- to refine and rein in that anarchy  -- is to change the essence of what and who we are as a species.

Inspiration, spontaneity, all strong emotions, it seems, have been forsaken as "imperfections" in this world of Gattaca.  The genetically-engineered people who dwell there are intelligent and beautiful, but -- somehow -- shallow.  All their struggles were resolved for them before they were born; on the battlefield of test tubes and splicing.   Now, these men and women of Gattaca are surrounded by inspiring rocket launches every day, and never turn their eyes heavenward; never express excitement about the final frontier. 

Why strive or struggle when your destiny is written and cemented in your genes?

When I consider the great science fiction films of the 1990s, my mind almost always conjures Gattaca first (though I am also quite enamored with The Matrix [1999]).  The 1997 Niccol film not only artistically imagines a very believable, very distinctive near future, it  also explores that future fully, and in the process makes a case against discrimination or racism in all its forms.     It also asks a pertinent question: without the struggle -- the struggle to be better, stronger, smarter, more resourceful and successful -- what's left for human kind?

But, as science fiction, in particular, Gattaca, succeeds so ably because it extrapolates -- based on 1997 knowledge -- on one possible future direction of our species.

In terms of context, the most important thing to understand about Gattaca is that it was crafted and released in the decade of the Human Genome Project,  a  "13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health" with the goals of "identifying all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, determining the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, storing this information in databases, and improving tools for data analysis," among other things.

The 1990s also brought us an obsession with forensic science, the use of physical DNA evidence in solving crimes, and even the first successful cloning experiment in 1997, involving a lamb named Dolly. 

Accordingly, many films of the decade, from Jurassic Park (1993) to The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) to Alien Resurrection (1997) to Mimic (1998) to  Gattaca (1997) gazed at the possibilities and pitfalls of advanced genetic engineering.  Not since the age of the Atom Bomb in the 1950s had the genre obsessed so much on the idea of a Pandora's Box being opened,and the potential for science to "run amok."

On theatrical release, Gattaca failed to draw an audience, although the critical response was mostly positive.  Janet Maslin at The New York Times called the film "a handsome and fully imagined work of cautionary futuristic fiction."  

Walter Addiego at the San Francisco Examiner recognized the film's value as "social criticism" and opined that Gattaca was a "welcome throwback to the days of good, low-tech sci-fi, stressing character and atmosphere over computer-generated effects and juvenile thrills. It reminds me of the older sort of British science fiction, produced on very modest budgets, but with superior writing and acting, that achieved a thoughtfulness many don't expect from this genre."

Elegant, gorgeous and filled with heart, Gattaca is the amazing story of a man who beats the hand his genes and society have dealt him.  Maybe, that's the story of us all...

"My real résumé  is in my cells."

In the "not-so-distant future" of Gattaca, a man named Vincent (Hawke) relates, in voice-over, the story of his life. 

He was a "faith birth," meaning that his parents conceived him without first seeking the help and meddling of genetic engineers.  When Vincent was born and he was given a life expectancy of just "30.2" years, his parents were scared straight.  They set about having another child...the "proper" way this time, with the aid of helpful scientists. 

"We want to give your child the best possible start," says the Geneticist.  "Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn't need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result."

As Vincent grew, he was overshadowed in every way by his genetically-engineered brother, Anton (Lorn Dean). But he also became fascinated by the subject of outer space, and the potentials it promised to escape the conformity of Earth. 

But because he was a "de-gene-rate" or "Invalid," Vincent would never be allowed to go to the stars.  "The only way you'll see the inside of a spaceship is if you're cleaning it," he is told in no uncertain terms.  In this world, all the faith births form a kind of custodial underclass, doing menial jobs that the Elite won't.

So, Vincent leaves home and family, and with a "borrowed ladder" in Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), gets a job in Gattaca, the space command center, which sends spaceships to the stars every single day. 

Pretending to be Jerome, Vincent carries bags of Jerome's urine in case of surprise drug tests, and even adorns small blood pouches under his fingernails so he can pass daily blood tests.  He is a pretender amongst the Elite, but if he plays his cards right, he will man a yearlong voyage toTitan.

Despite Vincent's cleverness and drive, one thing stands in his way.  With the flight to Titan pending, the mission director is found murdered -- battered with a computer keyboard -- and a police investigation by "Hoovers" is commenced. 

Very quickly, the detective on the case, Anton, discovers evidence of an invalid on the premises, his long-lost brother Vincent, and the hunt is on.  Now Vincent must outwit his genetically "superior" brother, the forces of law enforcement, and overcome the suspicions of his new girlfriend, Irene (Uma Thurman) if he hopes to achieve his dream of touching the stars...

Fortunately, he has at least one secret ally.

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

If you take away all the scientific, film noir and futuristic trappings of Gattaca, what you have is a simple and heartfelt morality tale concerning prejudice. 

Bigotry, after all, involves the judging of other people by exterior but ultimately superficial qualities.  The color of their skin.  Their sexTheir sexual orientation.   Where they were born, even.   

These are all things that -- like genetic make-up -- don't account for an individual's personal character, heart, or mind-set.   Everyone can choose to be good, or choose to be bad; can choose to be strong, or choose to be weak.  Everyone can excel, and deserves the right to follow their dreams, no matter what skin color or genitals they possess.

But what's even more alarming about Gattaca is that the film intimates a State-sponsored brand of prejudice.  Institutionally-speaking, "Invalids" are lesser (three-fifths?) people than the genetically-engineered elite. In one short sequence, we see, for instance, that many Invalids live in an urban, ghetto-style community away from the "pretty" people.  They're so unsightly after all, right?

And though there are laws on the books against "genoism," these edicts are easily discounted, and talk is rampant of "the right kind of people," meaning only the genetically engineered.   

Cannily, the crisp, elegant, 1950s-1960s-look and production design of Gattaca suggests, quite dramatically, the pre-Civil Rights era in our own nation. This was a time when it was okay for African-Americans to be waiters and elevator operators, but not astronauts (that didn't happen in America until 1983). 

I often write here about form echoing content in great films; and that's what Gattaca does so well, too.  It presents a future that has one foot in the inequalities of the past; and the Eisenhower-era styled costumes and cars express that idea beautifully.  Even the idea of a nascent space program reflects that era in American history (post-Sputnik).  One step forward; two steps back.

Another intriguing facet of the Niccol film involves the class distinctions even amongst the genetically engineered. If the Invalids are the least of the society, some of the elite are also -- tellingly--  victims of their DNA and their propaganda about DNA.  Irene, for instance, possesses a tiny heart defect, and believes that this problem some how renders her lesser than the others around her.  In fact, this small thing destroys her sense of self.

"You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene?," Vincent asks her. "They've got you looking for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see. For what it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible."

This too is a side-effect of institutionalized racism.  Some of those discriminated against come to internalize the hateful beliefs of the bigots.  Some part of them believes that they really are inferior, or lesser, or somehow "degenerate."  Institutionalized racism is not just cruel and ill-founded, it's ego shattering to those targeted.  That's what Irene represents in the movie.

Gattaca affirms that people are more than a mix of proteins (more than skin color or sex, by extension, in contemporary terms) quite ably in several ways.  First and foremost, of course, Vincent executes his brilliant strategy and gets to the stars.  He succeeds because he wanted it; because he desired it; and because he masterminded a way to get it. 

This plot-line allows the viewer to see that desire and drive can be more powerful a motivating force than genetics.  Early on, Vincent figured out a way to beat the elite.  "I never saved anything for the swim back," he reveals to his brother, Anton. In other words, he marshals all of his resources to get where he wants; with no resources waylaid or wasted or rationed for a return trip. For him, getting there is the entire battle.  That is victory enough.

A bit more subtly, Eugene/Jerome (Jude Law) also, in some way, proves the same thing.  He is paralyzed from the waist down, considers himself a failure, and yet commits himself fully to Vincent's cause.  A genetically-engineered person, he is supposed to be perfect in every way, but early on, he lacks Vincent's sense of desire. 

Late in the film, however, the paralyzed man pulls himself up a staircase (seen in the poster above) shaped deliberately like the DNA helix.  Eugene drags himself to the top of this edifice -- with his drive and desire to help his "brother," Vincent intact -- and succeeds beyond all expectations.  Again, think of it symbolically: even paralyzed, Eugene's desire is more powerful than genetics (represented by that staircase and his mastery of it.)

In their own ways, both Vincent and Jerome/Eugene overcome society's impression of them (which is based on genoism).  Both prove to have "the right stuff" and manage to outwit law enforcement, the space program, and their fellow citizens.  Again, the powerful leitmotif is that individual human drive trumps genetic blueprints or "programming" every time.

Another important idea here concerns "brothers" and "genetics."  Vincent and Anton are biological brothers, but are estranged and competitive.  Vincent and Eugene are not biological brothers, but are united as brothers in their purpose and mission.  Eugene gives everything (finally his life) for his spiritual brother, a sacrifice which the more rational, less spontaneous Anton could never imagine. 

Again, look back at the 1990s in America.  This was an age when the shape of families was changing in dramatic and non-traditional ways.  Because of no-fault divorce, more blended families came into being in this country than in any decade previous.

And also for the first time, beginning in the 1990s, homosexual couples could openly adopt and raise children. 

What these changes indicate is that "family" was no longer a static concept tied exclusively to biology.  Stepfathers, stepmothers, and step-siblings are family too.  The intentional comparison and balance between Vincent/Anton and Vincent/Eugene mirrors this change in American society, and it too is a critique of sorts. Genetic, biological relationships are not the only standard of family, Gattaca suggests, and should not be held up as "perfect" while other relationships are treated as, well, invalid.

"Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving... maybe I'm going home."

In Gattaca, Vincent compares the weightless environment of space to being "in the womb" and later he notes that he is not leaving Earth on his mission to the stars, but rather "going home." 

When these words are taken in conjunction with the film's surfeit of water imagery (swimming, in particular...), one can see how Gattaca concerns, in some way, the ever-present human struggle to begin again; to experience a second birth, get a second chance. In this case, Vincent literally wants to be born  free of society's restrictive rules, and -- by going to space -- transcend the limitations of bigoted society.  The water represents cleansing and a return to the womb; as does space travel.

I deeply admire how Gattaca concerns these powerful idea of transcendence.  Vincent must transcend society's expectations of him to make his dreams come true; and he must literally leave the Earth to do it.  The stars are his destination, and in that idea of the final frontier there is also the kernel of hope.  Of finding something better out there; or at least something that gives one a new perspective on life here.  Thus Gattaca is about the human desire to transcend the unpleasant moment and see over the next hill.

If you've seen Gattaca, you'll remember how gorgeous the film is, in terms of visuals. There's a gorgeous scene in which golden sunlight lands on reflective satellite dishes in the desert, for instance, and the film's color palette is suggestive of a paradise on Earth...even if all cannot share in it equally. 

But I equally admire how Gattaca gets every detail right, down to the futuristic slang ("de-gene-rates,") and down to terminology (cops are called "Hoovers" not after J. Edgar but after the hand vacuums they use to collect evidence.) The movie even gets right the "soft bigotry of low expectations" visited upon the Invalids by even "nice" people among the elite.    These people aren't evil, they just live according their society's rules, and society has told them it is okay to look down their noses at "God children" or "faith births."
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss, at least a little, Gattaca as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," a futuristic film noir.  In particular, the film is structured in the familiar fashion of a 1940s or 1950s noir.   Like other film noirs,  Gattaca concerns a crime aspect (murder) or police procedural plot-line.  It is about a "social problem" (in this case, prejudice or bigotry) and it is structured as a series of flashbacks introduced through a laconic voice-over narration (Vincent's).

In this case, the film noir structure serves the same purpose as the 1950s-1960s-style wardrobe and production design.  It ties the futuristic world imagined by Gattaca with a Pre-Civil Rights Movement past in America; a time when prejudice, if not institutionalized, was at least pervasive.

In Gattaca, it's clear that mankind has taken a wrong turn, and it's easy enough to see how it happened.  Who wouldn't want to eliminate baldness, the propensity towards obesity, or other "negative" qualities from our genetic make-up?  The problem is that it's hard to know where to draw the line.  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?  Who gets decide what is perfect, and what is imperfect?  Scientists?  Politicians? Theologians?

In this case, I sympathize with the decision made by Vincent's parents in the first case.   "We were just wondering if, if it is good to just leave a few things to, to chance?" his father asks. 

I also agree with something Vincent reminds us at one point in the film: "They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness."

In Gattaca, "they don't say that anymore." 

And it's their loss.


  1. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Nice review John. Very Sociological. -rc.


    These unusual images -- extreme close-ups, actually -

    - Weren't these special effects done with large models on a stage?

  2. Hi Rick!

    Thanks for the compliment. I think....

    Yes, you know, you're probably right. I just meant that we were seeing the images at extreme close-up view; meaning they fill much of the screen. I should have been more precise. Bastard...:)


  3. An absolutely splendid examination of an extraordinary film, John. You make your usual spot-on observations. I think the look and the art direction of this film really helps to drive the core of the genetics and bigotry on display (note how the staircase is used to mimic DNA's double-helix structure in the movie poster you included in the post). It's been awhile since I've seen this, but the other 90's films you reference does help to recognize its pedigree, don't you think? Sorry, couldn't resist.

  4. Argh! Bad typing on my part and sent the comment too soon. Anyway, this was a great read that inspires me to get the Blu-ray version of the film. Thanks so much for this, John.

  5. This is the type of film I hoped we'd see more of growing up in the 1970's i.e "intelligent sci-fi."

    It is a tremendous film for all the reasons you've stated here so I won't be redundant.

    Hopefully we'll see more of its ilk this decade.

  6. Excellent, well-thought out review on this film that, I admit, left me a little cold when I first saw it in theaters. I don't know what I was expecting going in but it just didn't do it for me... at the time. I really need to revisit this film as I probably haven't seen it since then and your review has made me curious to check it out again and see it in a new way.

  7. Anonymous11:17 AM

    I can't recall exactly when I saw this for the first time. I know it wasn't in the theater. Probably something I tumbled over at the video store, but it's been a favorite. I've made a point to have a copy in my collection at all times since then. The science fiction I was prepped for, but the depth surprised me.

    As always - your examination of this fine film was thorough and insightful. The subtexts of discrimination and family are certainly rife throughout and make this to me, a movie that is certainly a cut above the standard that the genre usually sets for itself.

    And the visuals -are- amazing, aren't they? They only underscore what I find to be a thoroughly engaging and touching piece of cinema. I can't count the times I've watched this, but I always find myself wanting to tear up during the final moments - as the final voice-over is laid over the intercutting of Vincent and Eugene's final scenes. Something in there... just tugs at me... Not sure I lay a name on it.

  8. Hi everyone. Terrific comments here on Gattaca.

    Le0pard13: Thank you for the kind words. The staircase shaped like the helix is a great visual touch, and Gattaca is filled with them. I think you will really enjoy the blu-ray. The film has never looked better.

    Indianhoop: Yes, indeed, it is nice to see a thoughtful (not all fireballs and robots and laser swords) science fiction film; and more like the ones we grew up with in the 1970s. I think that's one reason I love it so much too. I've read comparisons between this film and Logan's Run, for instance.

    J.D. I really think you would like Gattaca if you saw it again today. I also saw it upon release and liked it, but my enjoyment and appreciation of it has grown over the years. Now I think it is the best sci-fi film of the 1990s, hands-down. (But again, big Matrix fan here...).

    Woodchuckgod: I am absolutely simpatico with you on the emotional impact of Gattaca. I also find myself growing emotional during those last scenes with Vincent and Eugene. It's a very powerful movie. Somehow it manages to be both sad and inspirational.

    Thank you all for the great comments!


  9. Sorry so late to the this one John. Your thoughtful write ups take some time for me to read and I don't always have that block of time available right away and thta goes for any fine writing that's out there that requires more than a passing glance.

    Anyway, like you, I really loved Gattaca. I saw the film as a younger person when it arrived on video or DVD and I remember really and truly enjoying it for its ideas and its pure, sci-fi concepts that were more reminiscent of real science fiction.

    The casting was great and the drama was well paced with Hawke giving us one of his finer performances to date really.

    Your analysis of the visuals and the ideas behind the film were as usual an enjoyable read. I, to, loved that satellite scene. What a stunner!

    I loved your commentaryu in the fourth paragraph from the bottom. Great food for thought. Gattaca is such a great, reflective film. And I get your points about the noir. If science fiction is about presenting the possibility of a potential future and going down certain roads I think Gattaca is one of the best at presenting one of the more realistic possibilties. It's quite scary.

    Your analysis of this film reminded me of another that caught my attention back in the day that looked similar in its approach to science fiction.

    I never saw that film. That film was Code 46 by Michael Winterbottom. Do you have an opinion on this one for me my friend?

    Thank you for the thoughtful science fiction analysis as always. Best to you, SFF

  10. Hi SFF:

    Thank you for the great comment on Gattaca. I agree with you completely about Ethan Hawke. He's really terrific in this movie, and Gattaca offers one of his finest performances. There's a lot going on under the surface.

    I also agree with you that there are aspects of Gattaca that are quite frightening, quite scary. And that the noir visualizes that frightening aspect of the story.

    This time, while watching, I kept thinking" what if this future did come about, and my boy Joel was discriminated against because he didn't have the right genes?

    Being a parent watching the film this time, it became very personal to me, because I so much want the best for my son in this world.

    I did see Code 46 several years back, before I started writing my blog, and am ashamed to say that I don't remember it well enough to comment intelligently about it!

    I remember that the end of the film was heartbreaking, and that it was a powerful, tragic love story, in general. This is one I need to put in the old Netflix queue for a re-watch!

    Thanks for the wonderful comment, my friend!


  11. Damn John! I mean really...your review is so tight, so spot on that I wonder sometimes if the filmmakers could explain the societal context of this film as well as you have. I am impressed!


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