In the early days of science fiction, the aim of its creators was not to impress the audience with bombastic explosions or cutting-edge computer graphics. While the overall goal was to entertain and engage and thus earn a living, they didn’t have the aforementioned crutches upon which to lean. They had to rely solely on the power of their vision, their skills as storytellers and the ability of their ideas to engage. Gattaca has no ray guns, no explosions, no exotic alien creatures, none of the trappings of what really make something stand out as ‘syfy’ fare – but when it comes to classic science fiction in theme, mood and execution, writer-director Andrew Niccol shows us how the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne defined the genre. The film stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Tony Shaloub, Gore Vidal, Loren Dean, Xander Berkeley and Ernest Borgnine.
In the not-too-distant future, the study of genetics has grown to the point that children can be custom made through liberal eugenics, and that such children are favored over those conceived purely out of love. Vincent Freeman (Hawke) is one of the latter, and when his parents discover his 99% probability of death by heart failure around age 30 coupled with myopia which has all but been eradicated, they guarantee their next child will be more ‘perfect,’ or more ‘valid’. Valid is the term used for children created through the ‘proper’ eugenics, while those like Vincent are called ‘in-valid’. Despite this, however, Vincent is determined to achieve his goal of going into space. To do this he adopts the identity of recently crippled but brilliant Jerome Morrow (Law), and becomes employed by the space-exploring conglomerate called Gattaca. A year-long mission to Titan looms on the horizon, and Vincent’s first in line due to his fake genes and true desire, but the murder of the mission director could put an end to his dreams forever.
Taken on its own, Gattaca is a very smart drama. As a movie, it is well and tightly written with good performances from the actors. The art direction bears particular mention. The look and feel of the film is hauntingly postmodern, showing the use of electric cars and advanced gene scanning equipment against the backdrop of ‘brutalist’ architecture that was prevalent in the 1950s. It lends a familiarity to the story that draws the audience further into the nuanced and well-paced plot. But the virtues of Gattaca don’t stop there. This isn’t just a science fiction drama. It’s a science fiction drama about something.
The film is steeped in symbolism. It plays upon themes of discrimination, destiny, friendship, societal control and sibling rivalry. This is an examination of human nature, and the influences that define, drive and shape the human spirit. While the film is quite clear on the stance it takes with these issues, it never becomes completely overbearing in conveying its message. The story and themes are handled with elegance, downplaying most potential bombast with human emotions that feel real. This might make the film seem bland or lifeless to some viewers, but the plot, acting and thematic elements make Gattaca a taut, stunning dramatic thriller.
More than anything else, Gattaca reminds us that the only true obstacle an individual has to achieving their goals is themselves. It is far too easy for society or an employer or even one’s family to lay out boundaries for the individual, saying “This is where you belong, who you are and what we expect of you. Nice people do not deviate from their boundaries.” When politeness and conformity are the norm, an individual can feel compelled to swallow their dreams and follow procedure and protocol for the sake of avoiding confrontation. But the truth of the matter is that the dream of the individual is a precious thing, and as a society becomes more regimented and compartmentalized, those dreams are often casualties in the silent but deadly war for the human soul. We have to fight for our dreams, to keep them alive and bring them from our imaginations into reality, and there is going to be opposition every step of the way. Gattaca shows us that even the most imposing obstacles are surmountable, and as I have said on numerous occasions, we only truly fail in our struggle to be who we want to be if we quit and allow others to tell us who we are, rather than insisting on our right to exist, live and thrive on our own terms.
I apologize for the soapbox nature I just got into, but suffice it to say that Gattaca is more than just a good-looking science-fiction drama, and if you agree with any of the points I’ve just made, about storytelling or otherwise, it’s worth your time to watch this film. It’s available via Netflix’s instant queue, so even in this there’s truth to be found. In the end, the only thing truly stopping you… is you.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.