The letters in the title Gattaca are all the symbols used to denote different bases in DNA. And if that’s the first thing your brain noticed, then you’re wired in a very peculiar way. But it is, of course, apt for the 1997 film debut of writer-director Andrew Niccol, as this story is set in the near future, on an Earth where it has become commonplace to genetically engineer children before birth to be “perfect specimens”.
Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke, is not a perfect specimen. He was born the old-fashioned, natural way, and has an assortment of genetic drawbacks compared to his peers (and his engineered younger brother), including a severe risk of a heart condition. Vincent dreams of leaving Earth on one of the numerous exploratory space flights, but the only way out is to be chosen out from among the elite personnel of scientific super-corp Gattaca… and in the eyes of Gattaca, Vincent isn’t just imperfect, he’s invalid.
To get into Gattaca, Vincent takes the only option available to him: he cheats. In an age when one’s DNA is scanned but photo ID is never referenced, he’s close enough to pass for Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a genetically-engineered former athlete who is now an invalid in the more traditional sense of the word, following a spinal injury. Jerome provides DNA samples for Vincent to use to pass Gattaca’s frequent screenings, and Vincent pays for Jerome to live in comfort and seclusion. At the beginning of the film, it looks like Vincent’s dreams are going to come true without any difficulty… but of course, it being the beginning of the film is a big hint that won’t be so easy.
Two complications come into Vincent’s life; the minor, if more pleasant, distraction is a love interest in the form of Uma Thurman. The more serious complication is that Vincent’s project director is murdered a few days before the launch is scheduled, and though Vincent maintains his innocence of the crime, the resulting investigation threatens to expose his fraud.
Even the best-laid plans can be derailed by an unexpected homicide.
When I reviewed Niccol’s later film In Time, my chief complaint was that although it had a terrific high concept, the story failed to adequately explore that concept. Gattaca, however, has no such failing. Vincent’s attempts to hide his “invalid” nature in the middle of a police investigation keep the moral questions of genetic engineering at the forefront all on their own, but there are also frequent contrasts brought up between the characters. Vincent is, in the eyes of Gattaca and society at large, an inferior specimen; he’s not at peak strength or peak intelligence, and he has health issues even if they’re well-hidden. But he has tremendous personal drive. Jerome is everything he was designed to be: strong, intelligent, handsome. But he’s crippled, both literally from his accident and figuratively from self doubt after coming in second place during an athletic competition. He wasn’t engineered for second place (but then, neither were his competitors). He has become indolent and alcoholic; the determination that is perhaps the most-lauded virtue in traditional American society is one virtue that the genetic engineers could not provide.
There is a similar contrast between the police detectives brought in to investigate the homicide. One detective, played by Loren Dean, is young and genetically engineered. He’s in charge, and he is brimming with confidence, but finds the investigation both troubling and troublesome. The other detective is played by Alan Arkin, and as one might expect with an older actor filling the role, he’s not genetically engineered. While his ranking superior is younger, stronger, and faster, Detective Hugo is rather worn down. But he’s acquired his skills in the field the old-fashioned way, by earning them. These disparities between the two major pairs in the film highlight themes of nature vs. nurture as well as prejudice, yet although the themes are prominent and obvious, they never seem heavy-handed. This is because the film doesn’t really go into lecture mode at any point; it shows the dichotomies in the course of the story, but the story always takes precedence.
The guy who takes charge, and the guy who’s in charge.
These contrasts would not work nearly so well if it weren’t for the actors involved. Ethan Hawke and Jude Law play off of each other brilliantly; Vincent is driven and upbeat, while Jerome is depressive, but there’s wit on both sides and the two banter and bicker like brothers. It’s easy to believe in the “Odd Couple” style of their relationship as roommates and business partners (of a peculiar sort). Meanwhile, the detectives played by Dean and Arkin don’t get as much time in the spotlight, but their relationship seems equally natural. Arkin in particular does a good job of portraying an experienced detective who knows he’s better at his job than his so-called superior, but isn’t going to call the relative rookie out on it. And Uma Thurman does well as Vincent’s love interest Irene; the chemistry between them is somewhat cool-tempered, but nevertheless there. It works as the beginning of a relationship in a society that has become increasingly austere.
Not all of Niccol’s follow-ups have been great, but Gattaca was as auspicious a beginning to a career as one could ask for. This is science fiction of the classic school; it isn’t about the technology so much as it’s about the idea that drives the technology. There’s some moralizing, but it’s done with the backdrop of an entertaining story, and never overpowers it. And the small cast of main characters are convincing and engaging. It’s a very solid piece of sci-fi and a solid piece of human drama.