Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gattaca (1997) *****

“Gattaca” is the kind of movie that if you haven’t seen it, people will tell you “You gotta see it!” So I’m telling you, “You gotta see it! It’s awesome!” I could just leave it at that, but I guess that wouldn’t make for much of a review.

The title of this sci-fi noir film comes from the name of a future space agency. Jerome (Ethan Hawke) works at Gattaca, and as the film opens, he is on track to fulfill his dream of going into space. The only hitch is that Jerome isn’t really supposed to be there. He doesn’t have the genes to be an astronaut. In this version of the future, everyone is genetically manipulated to be perfect. Babies come from in vitro fertilization in labs which determine their height, sex, and eye color, and remove any hereditary tendencies to disease. Humans are still capable of normal reproduction, however, and occasionally someone like Jerome gets conceived in the back of a car. There is nothing obviously wrong with Jerome (I mean, he looks exactly like Ethan Hawke!), but in this future the genetically imperfect are termed “invalids” and forced to languish in the lowest tiers of society. I won’t reveal how Jerome manages to move from his janitor’s job to being an astronaut, but he lives in constant danger of being found out. All the tissue testing that is done at Gattaca to verify identity and rule out drug use is accompanied by genetic testing, so Jerome has to be perpetually prepared to cheat these tests. When a murder occurs at Gattaca, the increased scrutiny of the investigation threatens to expose Jerome and ruin his dreams of space.

“Gattaca” is one of those sci-fi movies, like “Bladerunner,” where people wear retro clothing, and it looks cool as hell. They even drive old-style cars, retrofitted with electric engines. The movie itself is very stylized as well; in fact everything about the movie is very cool and crisply done. The shadowed halls of Gattaca echo with the sound of footsteps, and everyone speaks very quietly and properly. Jerome is terse and reserved because he has so much to hide, but his manner fits in perfectly at Gattaca.

The world of “Gattaca” isn’t so very far removed from our own. It’s easy to imagine that within a generation or two, science will make possible the genetic manipulations described in the movie, and that genie will not prove easy to put back in the bottle. Just as parents today try to get their kids into good schools, the parents of the future will want their kids to have the best genes. It will mean an end to babies being born with genetic diseases, and adults will be healthier, too. There also won’t be any short people or people who need glasses, and then one has to wonder if this world might also lack for Beethovens and Einsteins.

The doctors tell Jerome that his genes make it almost certain that he will die of heart disease, but he makes it at Gattaca precisely because he has more heart than anyone else. As he tells his genetically perfect brother, “I didn’t save anything for the trip back.”

The point of “Gattaca” is that perfection isn’t everything, but the movie comes pretty close to perfection. Director Andrew Niccol blends sci-fi and noir in a great story with excellent style and acting (kudos to stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law.) It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves a place in your collection.

5 stars out of 5

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