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 ). 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."
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.
"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."
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.)
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.