Gattaca: Andrew Niccol’s Impressive Debut–Sci-Fi Thriller about Genetic Engineering

One of the first Hollywood movies to deal with the effects of genetic engineering on human civilization, Gattaca, New Zealander Andrew Niccol’s impressive feature debut, is an intelligent and timely sci-fi thriller that, with the exception of some illogical plot contrivances, is emotionally engaging almost up to the end.

Ethan Hawke renders a terrifically sympathetic performance as a flawed Everyman, an outsider who fights a new scientific system to change his preordained fate and achieve his quest of becoming an astronaut. Lacking bankable stars and spectacular special effects, this well-produced, character-driven film should receive solid, if not sensational response from educated viewers, with potent results overseas and in ancillary venues.

The tale is set in the “not-too-distant” future, in a tyrannical, impersonal world, in which “designer people,” forged in lab tubes, strive for perfection. Central premise, that rich people are able to choose the genetic makeup of their descendants, is intriguing, cashing in on the almost universal desire for improvement and control over birth defects.

Writer-director Niccol liberates the sci-fi genre from the elements that have defined it since Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey: Heavy reliance on technology, gadgets and spaceships, sophisticated special effects, and mythic yarns of good versus evil a la Star Wars. If Gattaca proves to be a major B.O. hit, it’s certain to launch a whole cycle of DNA sci-fi movies.

Not conceived in a lab, Vincent Freeman is an anomaly, a child who’s a product of love. But in the new era of genetic tinkering, he’s labeled an In-Valid, a stigma attached to all those imperfect creatures that are not up to genetic snuff. Indeed, Vincent’s genetic profile contains many defects: bad vision, emotional problems and short life expectancy (by age 30, he’ll be dead). These attributes limit Vincent to manual jobs and prevent him from fulfilling his lifelong dream, to become a space navigator at the Gattaca Corporation. At the same time, being human, Vincent possesses volatile and outmoded qualities that genetics can’t control: passion, hope and faith.

Beginning at childhood, the first, heavily narrated reel chronicles the differences between Vincent (Chad Christ) and his younger brother, Anton (William Lee Scott), a lab baby with the perfect genes for success. Whereas Anton is tall, strong and with impeccable eyesight, Vincent is weak, sickly, and wears glasses. Anton is admired and respected by his parents; Vincent is pitied and kept at home. Nonetheless, in a peculiar role reversal (based on the notion that there’s no gene for the human spirit), Vincent saves his brother from drowning, a traumatic experience that continues to haunt both siblings in the future.

Determined to revolt against his proscribed future, the mature Vincent (Hawke) enlists the assistance of German (Tony Shaloub), a DNA broker who sells false identities to the genetically inferior. In scenes that recall the mesmerizing physiological transformations in Face/Off, German sets a bizarre partnership with Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a superior specimen who, paralyzed in an accident, is willing to sell his genetic materials for cash.

To assume the new identity, Vincent must effectively conceal his flaws: alter his vision, enhance his height. An even greater challenge is fooling his supervisors, who regularly validate their workers’ identities with tests of blood and urine. Helmer Niccol frames the plot as a suspenseful murder mystery: A week before Vincent’s flying mission, the director of the space agency is murdered and every member of the program becomes a suspect. A bright detective, Hugo (Alan Arkin), and a zealous, somehow mysterious investigator is brought to the crime scene.

Not neglecting the romantic angle, Niccol shrewdly introduces a beautiful woman, Irene (Uma Thurman), a Valid citizen who has been accepted into the Gattaca training program, but, suffering from a heart defect, she’s prevented from going into space. The contrasting ways in which Vincent and Irene approach their limitations–he boldly challenges them while she passively accepts her fate–serves as another emotional hook for the audience. But ultimately the narrative benefits the most from the complex, ambiguous, ever-changing relationship between Eugene and Vincent.

Niccol creates a credible futuristic world, in which the issue of genetics control is more economic than political–the wealthy are privileged in their access to genetics control. This economic dimension will touch a deep chord among American viewers, living in a capitalistic society, sharply polarized between the haves and haves not.

The film suffers from a last segment that’s not very convincing and contains schematic contrivances, particularly in the interactions between Vincent and the investigator, who turns out to be his brother. However, one is willing to ignore the weaknesses of a new kind of sci-fi film that’s superlatively produced, designed and edited. Shot by Polish lenser Idziak (who worked with the late Kieslowski), the indoor scenes at the Gattaca Company recall King Vidor’s The Crowd and other Hollywood pics about huge techno-bureaucracies. In most other respects, Gattaca’s distinction is that it can’t be compared to any sci-fi movie of recent years.

The film’ title is linked to the four key chemicals in DNA: Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, Cystosine.