I genuinely think that Gattaca is an unsung modern science-fiction classic. Andrew Niccol also wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show at the same time, another science-fiction masterpiece of the nineties, and another film way ahead of its time. I wonder if The Truman Show eclipsed Niccol’s work on Gattaca. It’s certainly a far more conventional science-fiction feature film, with a decidedly retro-futuristic aesthetic to it, and a slightly more earnest approach to its central themes. Still, I think that Gattacais a film that has held up remarkably well since its release and deserves a great deal more praise and attention than it really gets.
To be fair, Gattaca is a little on-the-nose about its central theme. “There is no gene for fate,” we’re told, and the movie spends a great deal of its runtime stating and re-stating that idea over and over again. Just in case we didn’t see the rather obvious parallels, the film explicitly states that humankind has a history of discriminating. Our narrator explains, “I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.”
People are treated like used cars, to be bought and sold. “His credentials are impeccable,” Vincent is advised of Jerome, as if he’s buying a used car. “An expiration date you wouldn’t believe.” Genetic samples are traded on the black market, with human lives so compartmentalised that you can literally just slip in and out of them. At nightclubs, people are sure to check saliva samples from their dates before making a commitment. Better safe than sorry, after all. Gattacaactually does a really good job of portraying a society that remains similar to our own, but has been profoundly affected by modern science.
It’s fair to argue that, at times, Gattaca is just a little bit too earnest in making its argument – aggressively over-stating its case and perhaps leaning on its audience a little too hard. However, I think that it does a good job. After all, the general public’s understanding of genetics and the ethical issues involved have come a long way in the fifteen years since Gattaca was originally released. One could even argue that the US government’s decision to pass the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act in 2008, a decade after the film was released, demonstrates just how far Niccol’s script was ahead of its time.
(The same is true of The Truman Show, a movie with a central concept that seemed ridiculous at the time, but now seems shockingly plausible. Given that those two scripts were written by Niccol very early in his career, it seems like a bit of a shame that his career never really matched the potential demonstrated by those two scripts. Still, that’s a debate for another time. One is, after all, liable to wonder the same thing about Alexis Proyas, who gave us Dark City and then… Knowing.)
Of course, part of Gattaca‘s charm is its rather wonderful allegory, which seems very much to hark back to classic science-fiction. However, as one character goads, a good allegory will only get you half way there. Part of the reason Gattaca works so very well is because its story is rather ingeniously centred around that great Hollywood archetype: the underdog. Niccol has literally crafted a story about a hero desperately struggling against his fate and destined to make his own way in the world, against those who would hold him back.
The beauty of Gattaca is that Vincent finds himself struggling to overcome not only society’s expectations of him, but his own body. It’s a rather literal take on the “against all odds” story that Hollywood is essentially fond of, the stereotypical feel-good narrative distilled down to its purest form and delivered in a surprisingly frank manner. (The Adjustment Bureauwould do the same for the us-against-the-world model of romance, literally pitting its leads against divine authority trying to pull them apart.)
“Mom,” a young Vincent tries to assure his worried mother, “there’s a chance there’s nothing even wrong with my heart.” His father responds, bluntly, “One chance in a hundred!” It’s a very shrewd way of literalising the protagonist’s struggle to overcome the odds, by literally making those odds part of not just his character but his DNA. Like a lot of great science-fiction, from Metropolis through to Brazil, Gattaca explores what happens when society sets limits on human potential – and how one of the defining attributes of humanity is our ability to overcome those limitations.
“No one exceeds his potential,” Director Josef informs the police investigating Gattaca. They ask, “If he did?” Josef responds, “It means that we did not accurately gage his potential in the first place.” Gattaca presents the view of a society that has become so fatalist and so stale that it has ceased to imagine the possibilities. All that could ever be is whatever is written in their genes, and it’s telling that Vincent is the only member of this society who stares outwards (and upwards), while everybody else is focused inwards. (A nice moment in the film has Vincent’s former boss failing recognise him, because he seems to assume that if Vincent is on the other side of that glass, he shouldbe on the other side of glass.)
Gattaca also works quite well thanks to the unique film noir aesthetic that Niccol gives it, a sort of retro-futurism. This is a “not too distant future” that looks suspiciously like the middle decades of the twentieth century. Mankind is still somewhat focused on space travel, while everybody seems to wear fancy suits and smoke cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow. Even the hum of the car engine seems like an affectionate homage to the prevalence of “hover cars” in the pulp science-fiction of the fifties and sixties.
Of course, the noir theme suits. The plot is driven by a murder. Identity and deception are key components of the film. The protagonist finds himself in a cruel world where he has to morally compromise to get ahead. These touches are quite wonderful – there’s something quite fun about seeing police officers wandering around in fedoras and trenchcoats, while our leads part their hair and wear smart suits. It feels like a loving homage to classic science-fiction, without becoming overwhelming. The film has a very distinctive visual design, but nothing to feels too stylised or tooimpossible.
Niccol even does a nice job with the murder at the centre of the plot. Although he explicitly denies the murder to Eugene early on, Niccol is careful to keep the audience guessing about whether or not Vincent committed the murder in question. He certainly has motivation, as he himself concedes, “Only one of the Mission Directors has ever come close to discovering my true identity. Strange to think, he may have more success exposing me in death than he did in life.”
While Vincent tells Irene and Eugene that he’s innocent, Niccol leaves the possibility there – creating an interesting ethical quagmire. After all, countless characters question how far Vincent would go to accomplish his goal, and he is engaged in a fairly massive deception. If that Mission Director had threatened to expose him just before he went into space, what would Vincent have done? It’s a nice touch, and it’s something that gets brushed aside when the real culprit is revealed, but it is fascinating that Niccol makes a point to leave the possibility open.
(On that note, it’s also interesting how many supporting characters seem to in some small way overcome their genetic predispositions. “Take another look at my profile,” the killer boasts to the police at one point. “You won’t find a violent bone in my body.” It seems like most of the real police work on the investigation is done by the older officer, the one who seems relegated to a smaller role – most likely because of his genetics. Unlike his younger superior, it seems like the character has a better knack for police work, regardless of what his genetic profile might suggest.)
Niccol has assembled a wonderful cast. Like Tarantino, he does a great job with Uma Thurman, casting the actress to play to her strengths as a performer. Thurman doesn’t really have the strongest range as an actress, but Niccol uses her very well in the role of Irene. Ethan Hawke is great as our lead character, and Alan Arkin has a wonderful small role as an ageing police investigator. Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine both has wonderful minor roles in the film.
However, it’s Jude Law who steals the show as Eugene, the person lending his life to Vincent. His character arc perfectly mirror’s that of Vincent. While Vincent was a nobody who became a somebody, Eugene is a somebody who ended up a nobody. Law plays the role perfectly, with a wonderful combination of arrogance and heart that really makes Eugene at least as compelling as Vincent. While Hawke handles Vincent quite well, it’s Law who really excels in the interactions between the pair. At times when Niccol’s dialogue feels a little force, Hawke and Law play off each other perfectly. “They’ll recognise me!” Vincent shouts in a moment of desperation. Eugene responds, “I don’t recognise you!”
I genuinely believe that Gattaca is a modern science-fiction classic, and a film that deserves considerably more attention than it has ever really been given. It’s a shame that Niccol never quite lived up to the potential promised here, but it’s still a superb piece of cinema.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Andrew Niccol, ethan hawke, films, gattaca, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, Genetics, Jerome, Josef, jude law, Movie, Movies, non-review review, review, sci-fi, science fiction, uma thurman