Sony // 1997 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // March 11th, 2008
There is no gene for the human spirit.
Gattaca is one of those lost treasures of the 1990s; it was well-received critically, but never quite found a wide audience. I first saw it on HBO, and was just blown away. Then I stopped looking at Uma Thurman and watched the movie, which is pretty damn good in its own right.
The somewhat convoluted plot springs from a simple premise. Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Sim0ne) posits one basic, all-too-plausible premise, that we will break the code of the human genome; all of the major plot elements are extensions of how such technology might impact society. The genetic technology of Gattaca goes far beyond such pedestrian problems as predetermining the sex of the child. Quite literally, all of the guesswork has been removed from reproduction. Aptitudes can be established, and unwanted genetic dispositions (for violence or cancer, for instance) can be eliminated. But when people can create genetically superior offspring, those born without genetic manipulation become the new lower class. These "in-Valids" get all the menial work, while the "Valids" get the best jobs, such as going into space for the Gattaca Corporation (The name is derived from the four amino acids that make up the double helix: Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, and Cytosine).
Bad genes won't stop Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke, Training Day), though. He's nearsighted and a touch on the scrawny side, and has a 99% chance of developing a heart condition; as a result, he's polishing the floors at Gattaca. But he's wanted to go into space all his life, so he decides to pursue his dream. Because of rampant genetic discrimination, there's an underworld of in-Valids who try to pass themselves off as Valids (such in-Valids are referred to as "borrowed ladders" or "de-gene-erates"). Vincent teams up with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law, Sleuth), a recently paralyzed Valid. Jerome allows Vincent to assume his identity, providing blood, urine, skin, and hair samples to allow Vincent to beat the genetic screening. Vincent is hired by Gattaca, quickly rises through the ranks, and is tapped as the navigator for a flight to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. With but one week until launch, Vincent's dream begins to disintegrate. A murder with in Gattaca brings a police investigation, and a stray eyelash has revealed the presence of an in-Valid within Gattaca, making it more difficult for Vincent to maintain his fictional identity. In addition, Vincent is developing a relationship with Irene (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill), an assistant within Gattaca. Just when Vincent thinks that he is in the clear, though, there's a frightening new development -- the lead detective in the investigation is Anton Freeman (Loren Dean, The Bronx is Burning), his estranged -- and Valid -- brother. Anton, having seen the DNA tests on the in-Valid sample, realizes that while Vincent may or may not have committed the murder, he is definitely passing himself off as Valid.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. That must make this an infernal picture indeed, because, one of the main reasons this film works so well, is that Niccol invested a lot of time considering the various ways that this society would manifest its infatuation with genetic perfection. Everything in this world is a matter of genetics -- you don't need an ID anymore, you just provide a DNA sample. If you get involved with someone, you can take a strand of hair and get a genetic profile; in fact, a common way of demonstrating that you're serious about a relationship is to offer a strand of hair for testing. Niccol even mines the topic for some wry humor. Upon being questioned about the murder, one character responds, "Detective, look at my profile; there's literally not a violent bone in my body."
In addition to the strong script, Niccol provides sure direction and perfect pacing; you would never guess that this was Niccol's first feature film. The in media res opening sucks us right in -- Vincent showers, scrubbing with a ferocity. He gets dressed, grooming with determination, making sure that there are no stray hairs. At work, his work area is immaculate, to the point that he even uses a small vacuum cleaner on his keyboard. So far, he's got OCD written all over him. But then he takes a small vial and sprinkles some dust into the keyboard. We don't know what the hell he's doing. He is identified as "Jerome," and then Ethan Hawke speaks in the voiceover, "I'm not Jerome Morrow," the statement which launches the film into the extended backstory of both Vincent and this dystopian society. By that time, you're hooked.
Niccol gets great performances across the board. Hawke is an appealing lead, allowing us to see Vincent's fears, his determination, and the unrelenting tension. He's living his dream, but the slightest mistake could destroy everything. Uma Thurman's role could have very easily been two-dimensional, but she brings a vulnerability to the role, as well as great chemistry with Hawke (the two married the following year). Loren Dean brings a Javert-like intensity to role that's a touch on the underdeveloped side. But Jude Law, in his feature debut, practically steals the film. Jerome is bitter, self-loathing, and only gets involved for the money. But he slowly begins to buy into Vincent's dream, becoming just as committed -- illustrated by his harrowing efforts to drag himself up a staircase to prevent Anton from discovering the truth. Strong supporting turns are also provided by Gore Vidal as the Gattaca flight director, Ernest Borgnine (Marty) as the head of the Gattaca janitorial detail and Vincent's one-time boss, and Alan Arkin as Anton's subordinate, an in-Valid detective whose instincts are in some ways better than Anton's. There is a deleted scene from the end of the film involving these two characters that is the only deleted scene that might have been kept, as it provides an appropriate coda for Anton.
There's been no re-mastering for this release, so the picture and sound still have all the same flaws as the 2001 release reviewed by Judge Erick Harper. That's just criminal, because the film's production design is striking, creating a visual balance between austerity and warmth that enhances the mood in every scene. There's a great deal of grain evident, and even a quick trip through the digital scrubber would have made a major impact. There are two new features; the new making-of featurette has new interviews with Hawke, Law, producer Danny DeVito, and several other crew members. It's enjoyable, particularly with all of the production details on how they developed the film's striking retro-future look. The other is basically a quick primer of DNA research, including a discussion of cloning and stem-cell research. It's not particularly in-depth, but it does makes you realize that the movie was ahead of its time regarding the subject matter. Still, we don't have a commentary track, and Niccol himself is notably absent from the new material.
What we have here is a basic triple-dip. Sony is also releasing the film on Blu-Ray, and they probably just decided to trot out the original disc, with the new stuff made for the Blu-Ray tossed in. If you already own the 2001 release or the 2002 Superbit edition, there's no reason to upgrade. But if you don't already own Gattaca, it's a worthy addition to any collection.
Andrew Niccol is commended for creating that elusive creature -- a thoughtful, intelligent science fiction story in which story and character trump all other considerations. Sony, on the other hand, is hereby reprimanded for not showing this film the respect it deserves. What a pack of de-gene-erates.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Substance Test Outtake
* Making Of Featurette
* "Welcome to Gattaca"
* "Do Not Alter"
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* DVD Verdict Review - Gattaca: Superbit Edition