Gattaca (1997)

D: Andrew Niccol
S: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Gore Vidal

Paranoid sci-fi drama styled in the manner of some of the late 60s / early 70s films portraying the not too distant future as a barren, sterile, primarily urban wilderness of emotional distantiation, alienation and social repression. In this case the reason for any and all of it is the triumph of genetic engineering which gives people the capacity to produce offspring devoid of major diseases and other conditions which limit their potential to surpass themselves as human beings (known as 'valids'). Those born via more natural methods (known as 'in-valids'), such as our hero Ethan Hawke, are condemned to a life of menial labour and general snobbery, if not downright suspicion and imprisonment. But, driven by the indefinable qualities of the human spirit, he makes a pact with a valid paralysed in an accident to infiltrate the future equivalent of NASA, known as Gattaca, where he hopes to journey to the stars. He faces discovery at every turn, not least of all because when a co-worker is brutally murdered, one of his eyelashes is found nearby.

There's not much to this film at the end of the day, but it works reasonably well as a variant on a theme. Nothing surprising or particularly interesting happens, but it plays familiar chords with some visible concern for the themes and ideas being explored by inference. Underneath the murder mystery and the overlying story of sibling rivalry which motivates Hawke throughout, there's a weakly developed romance between him and co-worker Uma Thurman which shifts in and out of focus depending on the vagaries of the plot (she's nothing, she's an investigator, she's in love with him, she's not in love with him, she plays along, she disappears from the plot), and there are some bafflingly minor roles for veterans Alan Arkin and Ernest Borgnine. On the whole the script is workable but overstretched, and the film resorts to a voice-over to give it a hint of personality. The rest is the sort of techno-futurism of the 60s and 70s, calling to mind films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX-1138 and Soylent Green in terms of design, look and feel. The lush score by Michael Nyman is somewhat uncharacteristic, but makes for an interesting addition.

The subject matter is potent; ripe for this type of elaboration. There are some questions being asked of humanity at the end of the millennium and the film manages at least to raise some of them. If much of the end of millennium sci-fi made in the last few years has been violent, this film tends towards restraint, which is notable. But it is equally paranoid as Independence Day and its ilk, while lacking the human qualities which made Contact one of the most worthwhile. Unfortunately, we really have seen this type of thing done before, and perhaps a more unusual approach to the subject matter would have produced a more worthwhile film (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has still not been done quite as it might). As is, it's a footnote to the genre which is of interest only to those with a predisposition to it and a preference for the slightly pretentious, cold and slow-moving films from which it is all too obviously descended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.