Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Movie – Gattaca (1997)

Although the concept of genetic engineering had been around for decades in science fiction writing, movies had tended to either stay away from the potentially controversial subject, or they had presented a very simplistic view of it as something only evil scientists wanted to do.  Gattaca was the first film I saw that treated the subject intelligently, and that dealt with the social impact this would have on the world.  It is also the first film in which I ever saw Jude Law.

There are some other firsts that go along with this movie.  It was the first film for writer/director Andrew Niccol (writer of the Truman Show, writer/director of Lord of War – a much overlooked movie that is well worth your time.)  Gattaca was also the first film that Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) ever did.  Finally, it was the film where Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman first fell in love.  They eventually married and had two children.

The original title of the film was “The Eighth Day”, but by the time it was to be released another film had come out with that name.  Instead they came up with the name “Gattaca”, which is just a nonsense word.  It was created by using the common abbreviations for the four nucleotide bases in DNA – Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine.  To go along with this the opening credits for the film emphasize these four letters wherever they appear in the names of the cast and crew.

Vincent Freeman (Hawke) is a “God’s child” – one born naturally with no genetic engineering to give him enhanced intelligence or physical prowess.  His brother Anton, however, did have this advantage, so this creates a lot of competition between the two brothers.  In this near future that the film is set in, the “Valid”s have a tremendous social advantage over the “In-Valid”s like Vincent.  Valids can expect to be hired for jobs and to attain high social standing, while the In-Valids live on the margins of society.

Vincent does not accept this, though.  Despite being near sighted and having a congenital heart defect, he has managed to fake his way into a prestigious job at an aerospace company, with the goal to be an astronaut on the upcoming mission to Saturn.  He has been able to do this despite the fact that DNA testing is a near constant in society and is required for even the most mundane things.  How has he managed to pass all these tests?  He has the help of Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law).

Morrow, who prefers to be called Eugene (Eugenics is the science of improving the genetic characteristics of a species to the point of making them hereditary), is paralyzed from the waist down.  Before this happened he had stood out even among Valids.  He seemingly had everything going for him, but through his own lack of preparation he finished second in an important competition.  He tried to kill himself, but only succeeded in becoming a paraplegic.  The news of this was suppressed, thus he is able to sell his identity to Vincent.  Not only does this cost Vincent a lot of money, but it also meant painful surgery to lengthen his leg bones to match his height to Eugene’s.

It’s not enough to pass the genetic tests once, though.  Vincent has to constantly clean his workspace, keyboard, phone, and anything else of his dead skin cells, eyelashes, hair, or any other residue that could get picked up and tested.  He can’t have a suspiciously pristine workspace, though, so he then replaces those same items with ones Eugene has sold to him.  It’s a good thing, because a co-worker named Irene Cassini (Cassini was a famous scientist who discovered the rings of Saturn, which is also where the space mission is going to go) has started to be romanced by Vincent and she wants to find out what kind of genetic specimen he is.  She sneaks in and vacuums up some samples from his workspace for testing.

Things are made very difficult for Vincent one day when the mission director for the space flight is found murdered.  Suddenly detectives are all over the place, and a sample from an In-Valid person is found in the building.  Now Vincent must try to maintain his fake identity under the intense scrutiny of Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin).  This may be a stretch, but I believe this is a reference to Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserables, which features a police inspector that is searching for a man hiding right in front of him under an assumed identity.

There are some good exchanges between Vincent and Eugene on what they are doing.  We can obviously contrast the two – the man who supposedly had nothing who is now living the life of spectacular potential that the other squandered.  This is also driven home by the conflicts between Vincent and his brother.  The bit where Irene won’t go out with Vincent until she has him genetically tested and finds out that he is supposedly a superb specimen also drives home the idea that people like Vincent (not genetically engineered) may eventually become extinct.  In fact, the symbol for Valids in the film is the infinity sign, while that for In-Valids resembles a cross – another reference to them being “God’s Children”.  Even the original title of the film – The Eighth Day – is a biblical reference of sorts.  God supposedly created everything in six days and on the seventh he rested.  The eighth day would be when man started creating a new species of human.

I don’t often notice sets, but watch for the many buildings and interiors in this film.  They are mostly practical ones, not special effects.  I especially liked the large, helical staircase at Eugene’s home because it’s another nod towards DNA and the nature of the film.  I’m not the only one who noticed because the film received an Oscar nomination for Art Direction and Set Decoration.  It lost to Titanic, which won most everything that year.

Gattaca is an intelligent science fiction film.  It also functions as a bit of a detective story (who killed the mission director and why), and also as a thriller on whether Vincent will be discovered or not.  I don’t remember this film getting a lot of notice when it came out.  I think it has grown some in stature over the years, especially as some of the people involved with it have gained more notoriety.  If the concept for this film sounds interesting, then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Note: the video below contains a scene between Jude Law and Ethan Hawke that does a good job of showing both the contrast and the symbiosis between them.  There are no spoilers in it.

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  1. I really enjoy this film a lot. It's one film I'll mention as a science fiction story for non-science fiction fans. It's a beautiful film to look at as well--good call on the sets.

  2. This is what I think is one of the most underrated films of the last 20 years. It's got ideas that are willing to challenge things while also creating a drama that is engaging. I love the cast and I love the look of it. It's just a shame that Andrew Niccol could only succeed with this film and the script for The Truman Show as everything else he's done weren't very good.

    1. If you've seen Niccol's Lord of War and it wasn't for you, then that's okay. If you haven't seen it, though, then I definitely recommend it.

  3. I love Gattaca since it's one of the few Sci Fi films with a message that isn't preachy.

    1. I agree on it not being preachy. Some movies sacrifice story to get across whatever their point is.