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Gattaca (1997)

by on 2012/01/31

“Tragic though this event may be, it hasn’t stopped the planets turning.”

* * * *

Andrew Niccol, director of Gattaca might be better known for The Truman Show, a completely different-feeling piece with a similar “escapist” core under the facade. Where the latter is a more chipper adventure in an age of reality TV, the former is a dour gaze into the “not-too-distant future”.

In that future, genetics technology has advanced to create a society startlingly like the drug-driven one of THX 1138. (It doesn’t hurt they were both shot in some of the same locations.) Where Lucas’ feature showed us a populace narcotically sedated, Niccol’s offers us people nearly complacent for believing in their fates.

It’s all in the genes. With careful study, many of mankind’s “natural” ills can be predicted, or even precluded, and parents are encouraged to customize their offspring. The next step in test tube children eliminates a host of diseases and tendencies, but not all kids share the benefit of these procedures.

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke of Before Sunrise) is such a kid, a so-called degenerate, whose childhood dreams of spaceflight are stalled by a foretold heart condition. Undaunted, he runs away from home and adopts a new identity, Jerome Morrow, based on the details of a model citizen who has been accidentally disabled (Jude Law of eXistenZ). He intends to realize his dreams, one way or another.

His tale is reasonably interesting, and Hawke is always compelling. Nonetheless, I was entertained by the ensemble around him as well, including his later wife (and now ex-wife) Uma Thurman (Paycheck), Alan Arkin (So I Married An Axe Murderer), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen), Elias Koteas (Some Kind of Wonderful), Tony Shaloub (Galaxy Quest), and Gore Vidal (Bob Roberts). Character actor Xander Berkeley (The Grifters) was a bit of a revelation in a small, pivotal role as a doctor.

I admired just as much in the production itself. The visuals are impressive, the technologies convincing, and the sound and music subtly effective. Its ideas, forward-looking in the mid-Nineties, are no less applicable today, with the balancing of science and ethics still an ongoing, worthwhile debate.

However, while I found the lofty concepts grand and intellectually stimulating, I also found them clinical and distant. I felt tension at the prospect of Jerome being caught — particularly when Arkin does his Columbo-esque investigating — and yet these moments didn’t stick with me for long.

For a time, I struggled with the possibility this distance was intentional, the emotionless calculation here reflecting the fictional world. Part of me thought I should hold the movie in higher esteem; another part felt it fell short.

It wasn’t until I watched the extras when I confirmed my sense of doubt. One of the crew made a comment along the lines of: “You can put your actors in the most expensive surroundings, but if they don’t connect, it doesn’t mean anything.” Suddenly I realized — although I respected the story, actors, ideas, expression and craft, and everything else — something ineffable simply didn’t connect.

Gattaca is definitely cool. It’s unusual, substantial, and proficiently executed, but it didn’t put me over the top in feeling something lasting. Which may be in keeping for a world approaching perfection in an unemotional manner, but feeling something is an important part of my obsession with exploring films.

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

106 minutes

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