Sony // 1997 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 15th, 2008
A life is a dangerous thing to share.
Imagine a world where you could "pre-order" your children's DNA to allow them to live a full and healthy life without being subjected to diseases or other afflictions. It may have seemed far-fatched in 1997 when Gattaca was released, though it now seems more than possible. When I watched the film for this review, it was clear that this is one of those films where I would be hesitant to label it as "science fiction." Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is a film which treats modern science with respect and utter seriousness. It's primary goal is not so much for the audience to enjoy it -- which they easily can -- but rather to question and debate the idea of using genetics to spawn a "perfect" society. We're not necessarily talking about cloning, but rather creating ideal strands of our DNA which would make our bodies stronger, healthier, and immune to disease. Sounds tempting, right? At least it is in theory. Released twice on DVD by Sony -- first, in 2001, and again in 2002 as part of the "Superbit" assembly line -- the film is now available in a "Special Edition" on regular and Blu-ray disc.
In the near future, society now has a new form of discrimination called Genoism, which is essentially being prejudiced against those who are genetically imperfect. These individuals are referred to as In-Valids and make up the majority of the lower class, having jobs with no insurance or promotions. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke, Dead Poet's Society) is one such In-Valid, conceived in the back of his parents' car. A blood test is taken as soon as he's born, revealing a life expectancy of no more than 30 years due to a weak heart. Several years later, his parents decide to give him a brother, Anton, born genetically perfect, making him known in society as a Valid. Vincent grows up jealous of his brother's ability to grow taller, swim faster, and get better grades. He eventually decides to leave home to pursue his dream of exploring space, though he faces a significant problem: employers care less about paper resumes and are looking only at Valids to fill vacancies. Thus, Vincent is reduced to working as a bathroom cleaner at Gattaca, a NASA-like facility.
To achieve his dream, Vincent knows there is only one route to take: assume a Valid's identity. Enter Jerome Morrow (Jude Law, Road to Perdition), a former champion swimmer now paralyzed and living his days in a wheelchair. Morrow is a Valid whose physical condition has forced him to sell his hair, blood, and urine specimens for financial assistance. This odd contract satisfies the needs of both Vincent and Jerome, and after more than a year of extensive preparation to make one resemble the other, Vincent boldly applies to Gattaca as an spacecraft engineer. Every morning, Vincent must add an epidermic layer to his index finger to get past security. He must brush his hair and skin roughly to prevent any trace of his In-Valid self. And he straps a bag of Jerome's urine to his leg, to pass frequent urinalyses. In one week, Vincent will make a year-long deployment to Titan. However, the murder of supervisor triggers a police investigation under the command of Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). When one of Vincent's eyelashes is found near the body, it becomes a major threat to his future at Gattaca. To complicate things even further, he becomes romantically involved with co-worker Irene Cassinni (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction), who begins to notice subtle vulnerabilities in Vincent's behavior.
We've all heard the saying, "If everyone were the same, it would be a very dull world." True, but in the world of Gattaca we're only the same in terms of genetics and DNA. We would still have different emotions, interests, and attitudes. If anything, Gattaca certainly has a more appealing picture of the future than say, the violent turmoil and government control in A Clockwork Orange, or the world of zero intelligence that Mike Judge created in Idiocracy. Most science fiction films set in the future are escapist entertainment. Rarely do they seriously consider the ramifications of tampering with Mother Nature or having society make decisions as if it were God. Philisophically speaking, would genetically perfecting DNA at conception be morally acceptable? Gattaca doesn't exactly address that question, though it does present reasonably believable consequences, that of a new kind of prejudice and the vast increase in identity theft. Those influenced by religion would certainly object because, to them, it would mean we are going against God's plan for us being naturally born and living our lives the way he intended. Like cloning, it would be morally wrong. In terms of natural law, this proposal would be deemed unnatural, because it is artifical and thus "against Nature." So, why should laws or parents choose how a person will grow and mature immediately following birth? After all, if God decides how our lives will end, then isn't it reasonable to assume that he determines how our lives should begin as well?
Nevertheless, not everyone is motivated by religion and thus will be more favorable to the benefits included. As parents, the idea of having genetically perfect children is amazing. Happiness will surely be increased, as you wouldn't have to worry about illnesses the child may acquire. Chances are the child will better off in in terms of education and having a better future. Even more so, they will be guaranteed a maximum life span. We can see how it wouldn't be an issue, if you look at it from the viewpoint that nature must be tamed so that we don't become subjected to its own devices. Problems of human sexual reproduction would largely cease and, most of all, it would seem that humanity wouldn't be harmed by such a practice, because diseases and infections would become a thing of the past. Regardless of how tempting these ideas are, it is still only a theory, though it's attractive all the same. Andrew Niccol, the writer and director of Gattaca, is exploring the pros and cons of this issue enveloped in a story of a man's mission to accomplish his dream in a conformist society. Sure, ingredients of murder mystery and romance are also added for good measure, though Niccol's lucid, intelligent script really wants us to think rather than be merely entertained.
If this phenomenon were to be made available to the public, than it would bring a substational amount of profits to the medical industry which, in turn, would become its own business enterprise. Insurance companies would benefit as well. When the Freemans take young Vincent to day care, the staff reject him because he is an In-Valid and no HMO will cover him. Think about it: if Valids never get sick or become afflicted, insurance companies would love to support them because they still need medical care in the face of accidents, which are much more rare than illnesses. If In-Valids become ill more often, insurance companies will find them too much of a risk to cover; hell, I'm surprised Michael Moore didn't allude to this movie in his film Sicko. There's also the possibility of increased discrimination. Companies would love to hire people who never get sick and can depend on almost completely, while In-Valids would act more like wild cards. In Gattaca, a job interview is nothing more than a blood test. It doesn't matter how much experience or education you have. It's scary to think the government could very well make this happen.
Politics and philosophy aside, Gattaca remains a compelling movie, though it may be too slow and serious for a sci-fi crowd which thrives on films like Star Wars and The Matrix. Perhaps that's why it wasn't embraced by theatre-goers, who instead opted for big-budget, blockbuster epics like Titanic, which garnered 11 Academy Awards. Gattaca received one well-deserved nomination for Art Director, as the work by Jan Roefls and Nancy Nye on Gattaca is impossible to ignore. Working with very little money, both managed to create a world which is admittedly retro, combining elements of the past with a futuristic feel. The result is wondrous. Aiding them immesurably is assistant Sarah Knowles and cinematography Swalomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down). From opening to closing shot, this is a deliciously visual movie, with vibrant colors (notably the blues and greens) and eye-popping sets. The homes of Irene and Jerome -- as well as the interiors of Gattaca itself -- are complemented by spiralling staircases, linear landings, and old-fashioned decors, while at the same time having advanced-looking computer and security systems. Sure, our future may not look like this, but there are still ideas that seem altogether plausible, such as automobiles being run on electric motors rather than gasoline and keys being substituted for card IDs.
Andrew Niccol is a native of New Zealand who worked mostly on commercials in England before venturing out to Hollywood. His breakthrough came when he wrote The Truman Show, a brilliant satire on television and how it consumes the lives of society. Niccol wanted to direct, but instead Peter Weir was hired. However, the experience did earn Niccol enough respect to helm his own script for Gattaca. His vision is throughly original and captivating, even though inspirations can be drawn from Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Niccol's doesn't make the story convoluted, which should satisfy those who don't care for science-fiction, a genre where storytelling has become devoted (and sometimes dumbed-down) to requiring aliens, space travel, and visual gimmicks/gags. While it offers a strong, superior cast, many of them were just emerging into the world of film at the time. First, you have Ethan Hawke, a natural, likable actor who I've admired since his debut in 1985's Explorers. Hawke chooses his roles wisely, and they often involve characters with a lot of depth and emotion, whether it be a dude with mannerisms (Troy in Reality Bites) or a cop whose ethics are challenged (Jake in Training Day). As the In-Valid Vincent, Hawke is influential in his voice over narration and determination to protect his dream despite endless obstacles. By discarding his contact lenses to avoid capture and not letting Irene know he's blind, the viewer emphatizes with him every step of the way.
The ultra-sexy Uma Thurman is surprisingly good as Irene, despite the fact we don't get to know her as well as we might like. While she may appeal to some as nothing more than eye candy, she still holds her own against a predominantly male cast. Character actor Loren Dean (Say Anything) excels as one of Gattaca's leaders who refuses to believe that a "broken ladder" -- or, an In-Valid who has successfully passed himself off as a Valid -- has entered into the engineering workforce. His boss is played convincingly by author Gore Vidal (best known for writing, then disowning, his adaptations of Myra Breckinridge and Caligula), in a rare acting role. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine (Marty) turns up for a few scenes as Vincent's cleaning boss, and future Oscar-winner Alan Arkin is well cast as Detective Hugo. However, the one who makes the biggest impression was completely unknown at the time: Jude Law. This wasn't his first film, though it was his first significant role, playing Jerome with just the right combination of frustration and compassion. Initially, he does look down upon Vincent even though he agrees to give him his identity, because he still considers his body and mind superior in every way. Over time, however, he slowly but subtly changes his outlook on the situation and comes to understand Vincent's need and desire to overcome his low status in society.
Sony has finally brought Gattaca to Blu-ray, though it's clear the studio hasn't made an improvment over the two previous releases. Even though the film is only a decade old, there is still a detectable amount of grain and flaws. The colors are still sharp and vibrant, though a clean-up could have been performed to make the best possible presentation. However, the new TrueHD 5.1 Surround track gives a great boost to Michael Nyman's excellent, evocative score. There are also 5.1 tracks in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as a Dolby 2.0 surround track in Spanish. Subtitles are provided in eight languages, including English and English SDH. While Sony is the leader when it comes to Blu-ray releases, the results here are less than adequate.
If you really want to see the bonus features, I would suggest a rental. They aren't substantial enough to warrant this as a special edition and don't include any insight whatsoever from the film's writer and director. The initial 2001 release had an original featurette, some deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery; only the former two are provided here. The new stuff includes two insightful -- but disappointingly minor and short -- mini-documentaries. The first, "Welcome to Gattaca," runs 21 minutes long and boasts new interviews with Hawke, Law, co-producer Danny DeVito and some crew members. As with most featurettes of this kind, there is behind-the-scenes footage, but much of the piece is rather self-congratulatory. The other doc, "Do Not Altar?," is much better, as it gives a perspective on the film's scientific nature/themes and what has been accomplished as far as this phenonmenon is concerned. However, it is only 14 minutes long. As for the deleted scenes, there are six total which take 11 minutes to watch. There is also a "substance test outtake" which runs a few seconds and could have easily been included in the deleted scenes. What Gattaca really needs is a Andrew Niccol commentary, though the filmmaker may have felt the film speaks for itself and there was no reason for one. Regardless, I know I'm not alone in wanting to hear about his inspirations and visual ideas; he did a commentary for his last film, Lord of War, so what's the deal?
In his Gattaca: Special Edition review, Judge Jim Thomas called it "one of the lost treasures of the 1990s." I couldn't have said it any better myself. Not only is the film criminally underrated, it's more relevant today than when it was theatrically released. As a matter of fact, more and more "science fiction" films of yesteryear are beginning to look less and less like fantasy as the years pass. If you remember Innerspace, which showed what would happen if someone was miniaturized and injected into the body of a human being, most people thought it could never happen. However, the film had introduced the concepts of "nanabots," which brought forth the theory would create little machines that could destroy diseases in the bloodstream and repair arteries. Now, there are currently several nanobot facilities around the world which are determined to make that plausible. Gattaca, which is only a decade old, is now in the same boat, and should be seen to be believed. Please check it out if you haven't done so already. You might just very well have a different outlook on our future.
Niccol and the film are found not guilty and free to go. Sony is slapped with two misdemeanors: one, for not doing any kind of restoration for this release, and two, for not making this a true Special Edition as it so proclaims.
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Welcome to Gattaca"
* "Do Not Altar?"
* Original Featurette
* Deleted Scenes
* Substance Test Outtake
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* DVD Verdict Review - Superbit
* DVD Verdict Review - Special Edition