"Gattaca" is a film that makes you want to comb your hair, check your heart rate and contemplate plastic surgery. Filled with genetically perfect people, it's enough to make DNA-challenged movie critics nervous.
That, of course, is the point. Andrew Niccol's compelling "Gattaca" is about "the not-too-distant future," when most babies' genetics are predetermined. Babies conceived by chance grow up to be part of "the new underclass," whose genes contain flaws that automatically disqualify them from the most prestigious jobs. Not to mention mates. Typical courtship ritual: Hand over a piece of hair for genetic sequencing and say, "If you're still interested, let me know."
While this scenario should provoke "1984"-style shivers, this movie is much more optimistic. In "Gattaca," the oppressive nature of the engineered society is only uneasy background noise in a poetic, almost romantic, story about human potential. It tells us that a flawed man whose heart is expected to give out when he's 30 years old can somehow equal and even transcend the impeccable DNA pedigrees of his colleagues.
This man, Vincent (Ethan Hawke, who sure looks genetically perfect), must pretend to be someone else to realize his dream of space travel. Society won't let him prove himself without genetic credentials. He can sneak into the Gattaca Corporation only as a "borrowed ladder," using the urine, blood and skin cells of a genetic superior (Jude Law) who has been paralyzed.
Their relationship, set up by a DNA broker (Tony Shalhoub), is an exploration of brotherhood and destiny. Law is amusingly bitter as the suicidal Jerome, a former athlete who can't accept that his ideal genes didn't make him perfect. The character is an obvious counterpart to Vincent's estranged, genetically engineered brother. Hawke's Vincent gently awakens both to the importance of spirit.
Gattaca is an antiseptic and geometric place, where beautiful drones are supervised by the gargoyle-like Gore Vidal. Uma Thurman plays Vincent's nearly perfect colleague, who feels more defeated than buoyed by her sterling genes. Like Vincent, she's hindered by a cardiac problem, though hers is minor in comparison.
Two hearts that skip as one! Can love be far behind?
As Vincent's first space flight approaches, a murder at Gattaca threatens to give him away. Though he's not involved, the very presence of his eyelash points to an "In-Valid" at the company, making Vincent, if he's discovered, the prime suspect. The mystery isn't particularly interesting, but it's a useful device that puts Vincent's wits to the test and creates some tension.
The chief problem with "Gattaca" is that there's never a sense of dire consequences if Vincent's deception is discovered. How is such fraud punished?
It would be bad enough to be bounced back to a life of vagrancy and janitorial duties (Ernest Borgnine is cast as a prime example of poor genetics, a member of Gattaca's cleanup crew). Oddly, the few members of the underclass portrayed here don't seem very upset about their situation. If there's a revolution brewing, it's not in Niccol's screenplay.
Single-minded and radiant, his film simply looks to the stars.
Starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated PG-13 (implied sex, minor gore)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 10/24/97