Under the opening credits of Gattaca, huge, mysterious objects fall to the ground and land with oppressive, Dolbyized thuds and clatters. Elephant tusks? Downed power lines? Volcanic ash? No, they are fingernails, eyelashes, and dead skin, respectively — telltale carriers of our genetic codes. Part of the magic of Gattaca, the best (and best-looking) science-fiction film since Brazil, is the way it focuses our attention on the detritus we shed everywhere. Our bodily wastes, ourselves? You better believe it. In the world of Gattaca, God isn’t in the details — our DNA is. Biology is truly destiny.
Gattaca is set in “the not-too-distant future,” when perfect humans (“valids”) are bred by computer and trained for elite jobs, while “Godchildren” — people born the old-fashioned, imperfect way — are doomed to marginal lives as cogs in the machine. Of course, pessimists will say that the future of Gattaca is already here — that we are entering a techno-fascist era full of self-righteousness and empty of compassion. This is what dystopian fiction has always pointed out in the guise of sci-fi, but Gattaca chillingly captures the quick-fix, intolerant mood of the no-sex-no-drugs-no-nothing ’90s, and where it might logically lead.
New Zealand commercial director Andrew Niccol, making a superbly assured feature debut, wraps his message in a paranoid neo-noir plot. The hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), is a Godchild with a heart condition and an “expiration date” of about 30 years. He dreams of being an astronaut, but the prestigious Gattaca space corporation will hire him only as a janitor. Vincent resigns himself to sweeping up the dead skin of “valids” until he meets a genetic black-marketeer (Tony Shalhoub), who sets up a deal between Vincent and a disabled “valid,” Jerome (Jude Law). Vincent will pose as Jerome, using Jerome’s blood, hair, skin, and even urine to fake out Gattaca’s hypersensitive genetic screening and win a seat on the next space shot.
The weird physical details of Vincent’s fakery alone would make Gattaca fascinating. But Niccol ups the ante when a Gattaca bigwig turns up dead — and a stray eyelash of Vincent’s is found at the crime scene. Will Vincent be caught (even if he’s innocent of the murder), or will he sustain his ruse? The real paranoia of Gattaca is in its theme: the destiny of biology can be avoided for a while, but eventually it catches up with you (you can’t get much more noir than that).
Most sci-fi movies look great because of cutting-edge special effects and lavish sets. Gattaca has few special effects, and its sets are struck from the stark, antiseptic mold of David Cronenberg movies. Yet the movie is at least as stunning as Blade Runner or Brazil. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who shot a few Krzysztof Kieslowski films, including Blue) is a sorcerer conjuring with golden browns and muted violets; this is one of the most beautifully photographed movies of the decade. Uma Thurman, as Vincent’s lover Irene, has never been more radiant — I wished there were more women in the movie to enjoy Idziak’s lavish lighting.
Gattaca is a “soft” science-fiction film — i.e., it depends less on hardware than on character and ideas. It may not be a hit — the Saturday-night, opening-weekend show I attended was considerably less than packed — but it’s ideal for cult-movie reappraisal in a few years (just as Blade Runner and Brazil flopped and went on to become classics — and those films, like Gattaca, got a largely ho-hum response from American critics). As the movie winds down, so do its momentum and logic, but I didn’t honestly care. Gattaca is the most elegant and hypnotic sci-fi thriller in years — a vision as dazzling as it is bleak.