Directed By: Andrew Niccol
Written By: Andrew Niccol
Produced By: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 106 minutes
Review Date: February 11, 2011
Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca seems a bit quainter than it did upon the film’s release fourteen years ago. What was a revolutionary premise about chiseling away the façade of a false utopia based upon the structured discrimination of people deemed genetically inferior (the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 appears almost a direct, if belated, response to the film’s scenario) is now simply the basis for an intelligent display of plotting an intricate con.
The reason the film still works, after we’ve at least started to come to grips with the fear of the unknown presented by Niccol’s backdrop, is the story’s simple theme (summed up by the tagline, “There is no gene for the human spirit,” and barely expanded beyond that) and the clever way its protagonist is on the run in the forms of his real and artificial selves.
He is — and Niccol doesn’t shy away from symbolic character names — Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), the result of a genetically unadulterated conception, also known as an “in-valid,” a “God child,” and a “faith birth.” The new normal is for parents to plan out each and every detail — eye color, hair color, complexion, sex, etc. — of their children from the fertilization of a sampling of ova in a lab and carry the preferred one to term.
Born with a heart condition that put his life expectancy at around 30-years-old, Vincent finds himself past his predicted expiration date and working for the titular aerospace company as a janitor. What he really wants to do is travel into space.
Employer discrimination is an exact science (a résumé means nothing when human resources can grab a saliva sample from the envelope in which it was mailed and map out everything about a person’s past and present, with a calculation of their future), so Vincent hires a black-market connection (Tony Shalhoub) to find someone worth imitating. The mark is Jerome (Jude Law), a near-perfect specimen who suffered a spinal injury, can no longer fulfill his own destiny, and drinks all day to numb the pain. With his new, borrowed DNA, Vincent finds a new job in the company — one with the potential for him to achieve his goal — though an onsite murder and a stray eyelash put him in jeopardy.
Niccol establishes this world of expected perfection with totalitarian gatherings of different bodily fluids and a rigid dress code of monochromatic suits (fedoras for the cops), even for those about to launch to Saturn’s moon Titan. Then Vincent must weave around the protocols. A mandatory blood sample for entrance into his workplace is tucked inside a fake fingertip. Random urine tests are cheated with a catheter bag.
No one looks at photos anymore, since everything anyone would want or need to know about a person can be obtained from an oral swab (women and men visit a dating booth, where the recently amorous have samples of potential mates tested, and it’s where a co-worker (Uma Thurman) tries to find out more about “Jerome,” in the film’s clumsy and obligatory romantic subplot), which is helpful. Still, colored contact lenses correct Vincent’s myopia (a telltale sign) and mismatch with Jerome. As a pair of detectives (Alan Arkin and Loren Dean) tighten the noose around Vincent’s world of sickly green lights and oppressively bland and geometric workspaces, he must improvise a few quick-witted escapes.
Gattaca works just fine. It simply isn’t as revolutionary or provocative now as it might have appeared at the time of its release.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.