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Film Review: Gattaca   Leave a comment

First released in 1997 and written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Gattaca is an intelligent science fiction film that’s never had the recognition it deserves, at least not in my opinion. Certainly I only became aware of it when I bought a second-hand VHS in a charity shop.

How far would you go to achieve your dream? Would you lie? Cheat? Risk a criminal conviction? Adopt a new identity? Change your appearance? Resort to major surgery? You’d have to be either crazy to do that, or just very, very motivated. Vincent isn’t crazy.

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) lives sometime in the fairly near future, probably towards the end of this century. The world he lives in is ours, but with one key difference – genetic engineering to produce “designer babies” has become commonplace. Parents can have their unborn children engineered, not just to eliminate birth defects, but to select for desirable qualities such as intelligence, good health and even good luck. Genetic profiling at birth can predict any problems and give a pretty accurate life expectancy. Not everyone opts for “designer babies” though – some parents, for religious or other reasons, go the natural birth route and leave the genetic makeup of their babies to chance.

Vincent is one whose parents opted for a natural birth. This is a decision that they regret almost immediately, since routine genetic profiling shortly after his birth indicates that he’ll have tendencies towards various imperfections, including manic depression, a short temper, and – worst of all – a 99% probability of developing heart problems and being dead at age 30. None of this deters Vincent from growing up nurturing a dream of going into space one day – but unfortunately for him, the society he lives in won’t even give him a chance to try to achieve that dream.

In this near future society, the good jobs go to the genetically perfect (“Valids”) and those born with the routine imperfections that go with having a natural birth (“In-valids”) get stuck with the menial jobs – cleaning toilets and suchlike. This isn’t something that’s imposed by the government – just as in real life, anti-discrimination laws are in place. And just as in real life, these laws are ignored by employers. This new genetic class system is enforced through random testing of blood and urine samples (usually thinly disguised as drug tests). There are ways round any system though.

By way of an underworld contact, Vincent is introduced to Jerome (Jude Law), a “Valid” and former world-class swimmer who is now confined to a wheelchair. The depressed and embittered Jerome needs an income, and Vincent wants to pursue his goal of becoming an astronaut. A deal is struck. Vincent moves in with Jerome and Jerome agrees to supply Vincent with samples of his “perfect” genetic material so that Vincent can adopt Jerome’s identity and blag his way into getting a job as a trainee astronaut for an aerospace corporation called Gattaca. It’s the same principle as faking up your CV to look like you’ve got more qualifications than you have, but much more involved. Not only must Vincent go into work with concealed bags of Jerome’s urine and blood samples on his person in order to get through the regular DNA tests, he also has to alter his appearance to pass for Jerome. This includes dying his hair, wearing contact lenses instead of his regular glasses and – worst of all – he has to have his legs surgically lengthened by a couple of inches to match Jerome’s height on the official record. Fortunately, Jerome’s disability doesn’t appear on the records.

Once he’s working at Gattaca, Vincent settles into a daily routine. Shower every morning, taking care to scrape off as much loose skin as possible, so he doesn’t leave samples of his DNA at work, strap on a urine bag for the random “drug tests”, place a sample of Jerome’s blood under a false fingertip (the turnstile at work takes a blood sample every time someone goes through it, and checks the DNA against the database). Then he spends his days sitting at his computer running through endless celestial navigation simulations. Gattaca’s a strange outfit, with a corporate culture that’s so uptight, even their astronauts wear business suits to work. They even wear full business attire when taking off on missions! As with most big organisations, the pressure is on the staff to conform to the corporate image, with the result that most of Gattaca’s “elite workers” are only slightly more animated than the average shop window dummy. Vincent does his best to fit right in to this culture, with just one exception – he takes time out away from his desk to watch every launch from the nearby space centre – about a dozen a day. Thanks to the extreme lengths that Vincent goes to to avoid detection, plus the Gattaca management’s overconfidence in their own security systems, Vincent does manage to work his way up through the ranks and is selected to be part of the crew for the first manned mission to Titan.

A week before his flight, two complications arise.

First, a senior manager in Gattaca is brutally murdered. Vincent isn’t too upset by this, frankly, as the manager was trying to get the Titan mission cancelled. But it does mean that almost immediately, Gattaca is crawling with ill-mannered, over-inquisitive homicide detectives – and when one of Vincent’s eyelashes is found not far from the scene of the crime, they know to be on the lookout for an “In-valid” who has no apparent business being on the premises. Random DNA sampling is increased, giving Vincent plenty to worry about.

The second complication is that Vincent’s attractive co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman) starts to take a serious interest in him. Irene dreams of spaceflight too, but feels that she’s being sidelined from flight status because – even though she’s a genuine “Valid” – her physical specifications aren’t quite up to the 100% standard of health and fitness that Gattaca expects, although Vincent certainly considers her “fit” enough.

Can Vincent evade detection long enough to take off for Titan?

Can Vincent trust Irene or will she shop him to the bosses if she finds out he’s an “In-valid”?

Will Jerome ever get over his depression?

Will the real murderer be unmasked?

You won’t find out the answer to any of these questions from me, you’ll have to watch it and find out for yourself. This isn’t your typical Hollywood SFX-driven piece of fluff, it’s an intelligent, character-driven film based on a very plausible premise. It’s also a very individualistic film, since it shows that an intelligent, motivated human being can strive to reach his potential even when it seems the whole world has written him off. This is a good film for people who like intelligent SF. Well recommended.

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Posted November 24, 2010 by Stuart Heal in Uncategorized

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