Sony // 1997 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // March 16th, 2001
There is no gene for the human spirit.
The distinction between "hard" science fiction and "space opera" is lost on most moviegoers. The best science fiction does not necessarily involve aliens and rayguns, but instead involves real people and how they deal with ideas in a quasi-realistic future environment. Gattaca is part dystopian nightmare, part police procedural, and part period romance, set in a not-too-distant future of genetic manipulation and made-to-order human beings.
In a seemingly perfect future, filled with seemingly perfect people, Vincent Freeman is an outcast. Everyone around him is a picture of genetically engineered perfection. Vincent, on the other hand, is an "In-Valid," the product of parents who took their chances with nature and didn't tailor his genes beforehand. He is a "faith birth," a "Godchild," part of a new underclass set apart by their genetic inadequacy. He supports himself with menial jobs, the only kind of work available to In-Valids under this new genetic apartheid regime.
However, for those such as Vincent who refuse to play the hand they are dealt, there are ways of overcoming one's genetic status. Through a shifty genetics broker Vincent meets Jerome Morrow. Jerome is a near-perfect specimen, but has become crippled as the result of an accident. He and Vincent strike a unique arrangement; Vincent will assume Jerome's identity with the help of strategically placed blood and tissue samples to fool the ubiquitous genetic checkpoints in society. In return, Vincent will share with Jerome the wealth that is available to him as a member of the genetic elite. Soon, Vincent (as Jerome) is employed at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, where he becomes a celestial navigator in training for a mission to the moons of Saturn. He also becomes romantically involved with Irene, a gorgeous co-worker who is not as perfect as she first appears.
All goes well until a mission director turns up murdered in his office at Gattaca. A stray eyelash points to an In-Valid known as Vincent Freeman, but there is no one by that name at Gattaca, only a navigator called Jerome Morrow. Preparations for the mission to Saturn continue amidst a frenzied police investigation led by a detective named Anton Freeman.
Vincent's relationships with Irene and with the real Jerome deepen as suspicion swirls about the company and the crucial launch date approaches. These parallel and intertwining threads come together in a thought-provoking and moving conclusion.
Gattaca marks the feature-film debut of writer-director Andrew Niccol, a former director of television commercials from New Zealand. His construction of this film is masterful. From the intertwining characters and storylines to his compositions and camera angles, Niccol shows extraordinary skill. The message of the movie is enhanced by visual choices Niccol made in conjunction with production designer Jan Roelfs and costume designer Colleen Atwood. They helped Niccols create a uniquely timeless, retro-futuristic look that draws heavily from the giddy scientific positivism of the late '40s and early '50s. Essential to this look was the choice to use Frank Lloyd Wright'a Marin County Civic Center as a main component of Gattaca headquarters. The result is a stylish, streamlined world that seems on the surface to be beautiful, warm, immaculate, and inviting, but when one looks closer is subtly sterile, regimented, and ominous. The fantastic, timeless look of this film is also greatly aided by some outstanding cinematography by Slawomir Idziak, who manages to capture some brilliant irony in warm, golden shots of this cold, antiseptic future.
The story structure of Gattaca revolves around the double-helix structure of DNA, which is appropriately reinforced by a spiral staircase which dominates the apartment that Jerome and Vincent share. The genetic fraud that they conspire to commit is commonly referred to as a "borrowed ladder." Of course, one of the truths of this metaphor is that a ladder can be used to descend as well as ascend, and we see this as a recurring theme throughout the film, affecting the relationship between Vincent and his brother, between Vincent and Jerome, and even between Vincent and Irene. On a higher level it works as a metaphor for the hypothetical future human society in which they live. It is a society that has at once liberated and enslaved itself by the use of genetic engineering, and has reaped huge scientific advances at great cost in individual identity and liberty. Niccol manages to weave all of these threads together throughout the film, often through fast-tempo skilled intercutting between corresponding or contradictory events, often tied together with strains of classical music.
The casting choices in this film are absolutely first-rate. Jude Law (eXistenZ, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is excellent in his role as Jerome. He captures a sense of bitterness and hostility as he rails against a fate that has deprived him of his carefully designed birthright. His character is not all anger and resentment, however, and he does show some real growth as he lives vicariously through Vincent's achievements. Uma Thurman (Beautiful Girls, Pulp Fiction) is also very good as Irene, who has to deal with her own imperfections as well as the revelation that the man she loves is not remotely who he claims to be. She is at once clinical and detached, yet emotionally vulnerable. Other good performances come from Gore Vidal as the director of Vincent/Jerome's upcoming mission, Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, "Airwolf") as an In-Valid janitor at Gattaca, and Alan Arkin (The Slums of Beverly Hills) as a detective bent on solving the murder and finding the In-Valid who dares to ignore his station in life and walk the halls of Gattaca. Xander Berkeley (Amistad, Shanghai Noon) is also very good as Gattaca's resident genetics screener, who knows more about Vincent/Jerome than he lets on.
The emotional center of the film is, of course, Ethan Hawke's Vincent. Hawke (Dead Poets Society, Snow Falling on Cedars) is able to play him as a man confident of his abilities yet living in constant fear and paranoia that his secret will be revealed. He is absolutely focused on his dream and knows he can accomplish it, but he has never overcome the latent feelings of inferiority that his society instills in all members of the genetic underclass. Hawke does great work here, and makes us believe every bit of it.
This disc contains a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film. Picture quality is very mixed. It is for the most part adequate. In many places the image seems flat and a bit soft. It is quite grainy at times, and there were some notable instances of strobing and pixelation around bright light sources. On the other hand, many scenes show excellent sharpness and clarity, blacks come through as solid, shadow detail is excellent, and colors are for the most part faithfully reproduced, especially the all-important skin tones. Overall the picture has its share of flaws, but bear in mind that this is an older release, dating back to 1998. The video on this disc in on par with most other releases from that period. For those who care about such things, there is an extraneous pan-and-scan version on the flip side of the disc, which of course I did not view.
The audio presentation is available in Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. The 5.1 presentation is for the most part sharp and clear, with limited but effective use of the rear channels for directional and atmospheric effects. I did notice a tendency for dialogue to sound a bit flat and hollow at numerous points in the film. The use of music is outstanding in this film, and the rear channels do a very nice job with it.
Extra content is fairly limited. The best item is the inclusion of six deleted scenes. One of them is actually an extended version of a scene that appears in the film; this extended version would have given more information, but would have slowed the pacing a bit too much. The rest of the scenes, while interesting, deal mostly with tying up loose ends that don't really need to be tied up. One of these includes some nice extended moments between Ethan Hawke and Ernest Borgnine, and would have been nice in the finished film, but doesn't really add much to the story. If anything, these deleted scenes reinforce one's impression of Niccol's skill; he knew exactly what to cut out of the film.
The other interesting item is a theatrical trailer followed by a documentary featurette about the film. The trailer and featurette run for about nine minutes, of which seven minutes or so is the featurette and the rest is the trailer. The featurette does not have much time to go into depth, but does feature some interesting clips of the actors explaining their characters, and more importantly explaining the world the characters inhabit.
Rounding out the extra content is a Posters Gallery of three posters, and a Photo Gallery of twenty-one still pictures. I am not a fan of static photo galleries on DVDs; as usual, these are basically unremarkable and add little to the disc.
As good as Gattaca is, it was not terribly successful at the box office, and as a result Columbia/TriStar did not pay as much attention to the DVD release as they might have. As noted above, the video and audio presentations are good but not great, and the extra content leaves something to be desired. For starters, a commentary track by Andrew Niccol would have been a step in the right direction; his insights into this complex and fascinating film would have been most welcome. I've also grown accustomed to cast and crew biographical information, and miss it when it is not included on a given disc.
This is one of the most excellent and thought-provoking science fiction films made in quite some time. With the recent mapping of the entire human genome, it can perhaps serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that our scientific abilities often grow faster than our ethical or societal abilities to deal with them. You can pick this disc up in the $17-$20 dollar range at most retail chains, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good, character-driven story leavened with thoughtful commentary on our human future.
The film and all involved in making it are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. Columbia/TriStar is also acquitted, but is admonished not to shortchange their films on extra content just because they don't make a killing at the box office.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2001 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer and Featurette
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery
* Poster Gallery