What would you do to give your child a better life? We give them shots and vaccinations, make sure they eat right, get exercise and education, but what if you could go further? What if you discovered your child had a debilitating genetic disease? If you could get rid of that before the child is even born, wouldn't you do it? And while you were at it, wouldn't you do a little tweaking to make the child hardier, more attractive, and longer lived? At what point does genetic manipulation go from helpful to harmful? And in a world where the genetically enhanced are the norm, what happens to those born without such assistance? It's these questions that Gattaca asks, and the result is a fascinating tale of human triumph.
Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent Freeman, a child born in a future where genetic enhancements are the norm. Out of idealistic notions of love, his parents choose to not have him genetically improved. At the moment of his birth, he's diagnosed with an almost certain chance of heart failure by the time he's in his 30's. Disappointed in how their unaltered son turned out, Vincent's parents have another child, and Vincent is always being told how inferior he is. Vincent has one dream: To go into space. But with his heart condition, no one will ever let him. And with an unaltered genome, no one will even hire him for a decent jobs. He becomes part of a new underclass, but never gives up on his dreams. When it becomes clear that the only way he's going to get ahead is through illicit means, he steals the identity of Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a genetically superior man crippled for life in a car accident. Now the pair have to work together to fool everyone around them into thinking that Vincent is one of the genetic elite.
For many, the common conception of science fiction is men in jumpsuits with laser guns, or a Jedi with a lightsaber. And while these pulp creations certainly have littered the sci-fi landscape for decades, real fans of the genre know that the best work is done in a more realistic and contemplative vein. Usually these stories use the trappings of future times, places, and technology to make a comment on our society as it is today. These tales are classified separately from the Star Wars style adventures as speculative fiction (as opposed to space opera) by enthusiasts. Gattaca is a film firmly in the speculative fiction camp, depicting a world that could very well be our own if we're not careful.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol (who sadly has not been able to replicate the critical success he garnered with this film) uses a few design touches to suggest a future world. By rebranding retro designs, and using buildings with distinct architecture, Niccol was able to make Gattaca look unique and futuristic without blowing the budget, and most importantly, without filling each frame with CGI. This allows him to focus on the story, which is told with confidence and grace.
Ethan Hawke is astounding as Vincent. You can feel the depth of his passion, his determination, and his will to succeed against all odds. There's a palpable difference between Vincent as a young man, awkward, nervous, and frustrated, and his turn at Eugene. The confidence he projects when he's playing his alter ego is thoroughly convincing, and you understand how he was able to fool his superiors and contemporaries. Hawke is well known for sensitive and complex portrayals, and Gattaca offers one of his best.
Gattaca introduced the world to Jude Law, and you can tell right from the start that he was going to be a star. He's brilliant as the real Eugene, a superman torn from the sky and brought crashing down to earth. He spends his days drowning his sorrow in drink, but as Vincent inches closer to his goal, his fire becomes infectious, and Eugene can't help but be caught up in it. Law plays Eugene with his sorrow barely contained, but long since turned into bitter anger. And yet, when Vincent falters, it's Eugene who picks him up, forces him to go on and succeed. It's a brave and fearless performance that was only the start of many great things to come.
In truth, Gattaca is a rather simple tale of overcoming adversity. It's just that the obstacle in this case isn't gender, race, or sexual identity, but genetic superiority. Niccol cuts right to the heart of the issue, offering up plenty of scenes of discrimination based on genetic makeup, which serves to make Vincent's close shaves even more harrowing and suspenseful. It helps to have a solid talent like Alan Arkin as the police investigator on Vincent's tail. But the murder mystery is a red herring, just a way to get the audience involved with Vincent's struggle. It's all part of Gattaca's tight construction, one of the many elements that makes it a modern science fiction classic.
The Blu-ray Disc: