Year of Release: 1997
Date Viewed: January 4th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Science Fiction movies tend to predict how society could crumble because of our imperfections. Gattaca presents a world that is more productive than ever for the wrong reasons.
In this world, the workforce is in close correlation with genetic makeup. Physicians can accurately predict a person's lifespan, intelligence and motor skills. There exists technology that can optimize these attributes for unborn children via genetic engineering. The rest are left to traditional birth methods or "God's hands." Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a young man born without the aid of genetic optimization. He dreams of travelling into outer space. But due to society's demands for only accepting the most promising applicants for high profile jobs, Vincent's wish is impossible. Racism is replaced by a new form of prejudice; separating the "invalid" away from the high social class of the "valid". Such discrimination is illegal by law but common everywhere, much like modern discrimination. Vincent suffers from myopia and heart complications. His life expectancy is only thirty years. This data is a barrier to many career choices. Employers no longer examine the content of a person's character. They are only interested in scientific potential.
Vincent's brother Anton (Loren Dean) was born later with the advantage of genetic engineering. Evidence of their uneven potential can be seen early on when the two brothers (as teens) practice their sibling rivalry by competing against each other in physical competition. The older more privileged Anton would triumph almost every time. But it is the few times that Vincent was able to overcome the odds that inspire him to follow his dreams and beat the system.
A few rules need to be broken for Vincent to have a fighting chance. To pass the many oncoming gene tests conducted by the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, Vincent has to take someone else's identity; that includes both a new name and genetic data. This is where Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) enters the picture. Jerome was a "valid" star athlete that became crippled following a suicide attempt. His reasoning behind that action? Jerome finished second place in a historic competition despite having been genetically groomed to become the best. Vincent surgically alters his figure to match Jerome's data and uses Jerome's superior DNA to avoid detection from the authorities. If Vincent can stay undercover long enough, and if his own natural will remains strong, he may have a chance to embark on a once in a lifetime voyage to Saturn's moon; a mission reserved only for the most promising applicants.
Gattaca is thought provoking from the very beginning. Vincent had barely began to narrate his childhood when I found myself asking questions. Why did perfection become such a universally desired outcome that it became imperative? What gives someone the right to judge potential? Do the ends justify the means? We are not given definite answers. We are expected to accept reality as simply the way things have to be, just as how Vincent was born into it. It's easy to feel sympathetic for Vincent when it seems the entire world cannot care less for him. Even Jerome feels that a day isn't complete without mocking Vincent for his genetic shortcomings.
The American dream was founded on the idea that anyone can be anything if the will is strong enough. Historically, prejudice has been one of the most common barriers for human goals, often committed by individuals that fear unknown cultures or demographics. The aforementioned scientific breakthrough brings a new kind of fear; falling short of expected standards. And with that comes a new American dream. Strengthening overall performance at the cost of individual freedom. The story can be classified as anti-government or perhaps even anti-science. I prefer to think of it as a pro-humanity tale. A cautionary message of what could happen if science is allowed to organize our lives instead of merely enlightening it. Some costs can be measured on a chart. Others, like Vincent's dream, are priceless.
Ironically, the human spirit conquering all turns out to be only an idea in script form. Gattaca takes a flawed approach in sending this message across. In nearly every scenario, Vincent reaches closer to his goal via methods of cheating. The system is unfair, so the cheating is justified. But it's still cheating nonetheless. Every physical attribute needed to be disguised, from Vincent's blood type to his body size and even his writing hand. Much of the drama revolves around Vincent narrowly escaping discovery. There is too little emphasis on the idea of rising above one's own potential, despite how often the characters speak of it. Actions speak louder than words.
On the visual side of things, there wasn't very much funding for special effects, which is okay since the movie is about the ideas rather than the image. Even so, it would have been nice to see more variety in the settings. For a world that's booming in prosperity, Gattaca's preference to maintain a gritty look makes everything look bleaker than it should. Adding to the problem is the music score that seemed more interested in grating on my nerves instead of helping to guide the story. On the other hand, the visual simplicity mirrors the aura of a Ray Bradbury novel. I imagine his work was a notable inspiration behind this.
Most of the characters that Vincent encounters throughout the story are set up well and serve their purpose. There is however one glaring weak link that was given more attention than deserved. Vincent acquires a love interest played by Uma Thurman. She relates to Vincent in a way, because she also suffers from less than desirable genetics. Aside from this fact being revealed, the angle was unnecessary. The romance felt forced and it left me to wonder if the director had watched Casablanca too many times.
Gattaca presents some excellent ideas with a clear opinion, but it doesn't back itself up very well. Still, there is a lot to ponder here and it's sure to renew appreciation for a democratic system that many take for granted. The movie falls short of its own potential, but like our hero Vincent, it doesn't deserve to be counted out.