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Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, 1997, 110 min

Gattaca is one of the few films that actually proves that fondest hope of all fans of science fiction onscreen: that a talented writer/director can create something worth watching even in the absence of a big budget. Gattaca takes a strong central idea -- discrimination in the era of genetic engineering -- and tells a carefully detailed story about someone who bucks the system. The movie has a few flaws, likely due to the fact that this is Niccol's debut, but such problems do not drag down the main achievement of the movie. Niccol takes the ideas seriously and dramatizes them effectively.

Jerome works for Gattaca, the space agency in the not-too-distant future. As the movie opens, he undergoes some strange preparations for work, and it seems as if he is trying to hide his true DNA or identity. We find out that he is slated for a mission to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn; he looks up at the test launches blasting into the sky as the movie shifts into a voiceover and flashback.

This decent and intriguing beginning is followed by a thirty-minute flashback, one of the main flaws of the movie. All of the information in this flashback is crucial for later plot developments, but it feels clunky and it destroys the pace of the film. In this extensive flashback, we learn that Jerome is actually a man named Vincent; his was a faith birth, and he has a high probability of heart failure. His younger brother Anton was genetically engineered, and a competition develops between the two boys, but Anton always wins in their swimming matches. Vincent can't get a job, other than to clean the Gattaca building. His ambitions lead him to an underground identity swapper, and soon he is assuming the life of Jerome, a Valid who had great genetic potential but was paralyzed in an accident. To distinguish the two, the former Jerome goes by his middle name Eugene, and Vincent has to make sure everyone now calls him Jerome.

Returning to the present, it's a week before the Titan launch, and one of the superiors at Gattaca has been murdered. This is bad for Vincent because the increased police scrutiny makes it much harder to pull off his DNA scam. In fact, the police find one of his Vincent hairs, not the Jerome hairs that he deliberately leaves lying around, and the heat is turned even higher. On a personal level, a girl named Irene who has crush on Vincent takes one of the Jerome hairs and gets it sequenced. She is heartbroken that he is clearly so much superior to her and that he would never be interested in her (I'll discuss this scene again later). The relationship between Eugene and Vincent is possibly deteriorating as well under the strain of the investigation.

The movie includes many fine moments of suspense. Vincent has to cross a freeway after he has discarded his telltale contact lenses at a security checkpoint. During a routine physical, Vincent is on a treadmill, and his taped sequence of Eugene's heartbeat runs out just before the end of his exercise. Later, Eugene is downstairs in his apartment and has to pull himself up the stairs before a policeman can get to the door -- worse, he has to pull off a serious imposture once he has answered the door. There was also a running gag in the dialogue between the two lovers, with Vincent and Irene delaying various good news, as if deliberately torturing the other. Will Vincent get to go on his mission to Titan? How will Irene react when she finds out Vincent is not really Jerome? And will the confrontation between brothers, Vincent and Anton, have any bearing on the current investigation?

The answer to the first of these questions -- Vincent's mission to Titan -- will be obvious once the viewer has figured out Niccol's point of view on all this. At that point, all of the suspense-building techniques start to feel a little perfunctory and the pace a bit draggy. Niccol makes the point that genetics is not destiny (or as the movie's tagline would have it: "There's no gene for the human spirit"), and the movie does a consistent job of dramatizing that assertion. The story could have benefited from a higher degree of ambiguity; Vincent, the loser at the genetic roulette wheel, never gives up, while Anton and Eugene, both beneficiaries of genetic engineering, are spineless and lacking in spirit. I suppose that in a small way Niccol is acknowledging the scientifically accepted idea that nurture works together with nature, and that Anton and Eugene, raised in the entitlement of continual success, can't deal with failure. How does Vincent get this missing indomitable spirit? The movie seems to suggest it's from his constant repression. I'll cheer for the underdog just as much as the next viewer, but I'm not so sure that that's a good way to structure a story about the benefits and hazards of genetic engineering and DNA-based discrimination.

The production design of Gattaca is filled with lovely choices, and is consistent from beginning to end. The movie has a strong neo-classical or film-noir feel, which suits the buttoned down personalities and the low budget. Niccol and his team come up with a number of ways to keep our visual interest while saving money. For example, while Vincent and Irene are at a classical music concert, we find out that pianist has twelve fingers, not by way of some fancy effects, but by the glove that Vincent catches and by the promotional poster outside of the hall. Gattaca's future is also established with a few gleaming buildings and a small assortment of retro-looking electric cars.

Niccol uses some solid speculation to fuel the plot of the movie, and he was quite lucky that the original release of the movie coincided with Dolly the cloned sheep and a lot of hype about the Human Genome Project. Apparently the script was written before this media frenzy, so Niccol had already accurately figured out some of the main issues. The movie doesn't diverge too far from what's already known about genetics, but the genius is in the details; Niccol spins out the implications of discrimination, sometimes quite bluntly, and much of the character development contributes to the ideas of the movie. For example, Irene secretly takes a strand of Jerome's hair to the (black market) DNA sequencer, and finds out that he is far superior to her; later, she offers a hair from her own head to him, saying, "If you're still interested." This scene is a particularly apt example for my complaint about the voice-over and flashback: show, don't tell. The flashback tries to demonstrate the issues but it feels too schematic, too sketched in.

Flaws in structure aside, Gattaca is clearly one of the better science fiction movie debuts, and I wish writer/director Niccol all the best with his career.

DVD Note: The two DVD editions of Gattaca both skimp on the special features. The Superbit edition does so by design (the series maximizes visual and audio quality at the expense of everything else). The other edition has some stills, a few deleted scenes, and a combination trailer and making-of featurette that clocks in under 8 minutes. Some contributions from Niccol would have been appreciated, or more context for the debates about genetic engineering.

Last modified: February 25, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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