“Gattaca” (1997) is Entertainingly Thought-Provoking


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In the world of “Gattaca” (1997), the only qualification that matters is having the right genes. It is a world in which the “responsible” parents looking to have children go to a geneticist who will weed out the “negative” genes like those linked to diseases and selectively choose the “preferred” genes like those linked to strength, intellect and abilities, all in the name of assuring the best future for the child.  Here, babies with the wrong genes aren’t accepted into childcare because insurance won’t cover such high-risk children.

In this world, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is an “invalid,” a derisive term used to describe those who were conceived naturally.  Based on a genetic test conducted immediately after birth, he is given a 90% chance of a serious heart disease and deemed to have a life expectancy of 30.2 years.  Upon learning this, Vincent’s father, Anton, names him Vincent Anton because he did not find Vincent worthy of becoming his namesake. Such honor went to Vincent’s brother (Loren Dean), for whom his parents assured not only a life without serious illnesses but also superior capabilities.

Despite (or, as Vincent says, perhaps because of) the unpromising future that was assured for him, Vincent’s dream is to go into space.  For that goal he gives everything he has, physically and mentally, despite those around him urging him to become more realistic about his future.  For “invalids” like Vincent, being a janitor at Gattaca, an institution which prepares the most élite of society to become an astronaut, is as close as one is going to get to experiencing space.

Vincent, though, refuses to accept this reality and instead becomes a “borrowed ladder,” taking on the genetic makeup of Jerome Eugene Marrow (Jude Law), whose genetic superiority was betrayed by fate when an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.  By taking on Jerome’s genetic identity, Vincent is able to join Gattaca, allowing him to pursue the impossible dream.

The movie’s opening caption that “Gattaca” takes place in “the not-too-distant future” is surprisingly believable, not only because of recent scientific advances in genetics in our own world, but because everyday life in “Gattaca,” with grounded automobiles and computers with keyboards, isn’t too different from our own.  “Gattaca”‘s is a world to which we can easily relate.

It is for this reason that the movie is so thought-provoking.  In the contrast between Vincent, with all the necessary will and drive but not the natural abilities, and the real Jerome Marrow, who has the gift of the genes but ended up only winning an Olympic silver medal in swimming, the film poses an intriguing question: how much weight should be given to natural skills vis-a-vis intangible qualities, and how far does either skill or effort take a person in life, especially after throwing in a fickle thing called fate?  The film isn’t too subtle in delivering this message, but the movie works because director Andrew Niccol has enough confidence in the script that he wrote to refrain from being preachy.

“Steady entertainment” is the phrase to best describe this film.  The premise of the story is creative, even if the entire narrative is ultimately formulaic.  The film is best described as a sci fi thriller, yet the film’s pacing is somewhat monotone.  The cast, while collectively giving a strong performance, doesn’t singularly stand out.

The film has two surprises at the end, and one works better than the other.  The first is a twist that involves one of the detectives who threatens Vincent’s cover during the course of an investigation of a murder of an administrator at Gattaca who was opposed to the mission that is to send Vincent into space.  Looking back at the entire film, I’m not sure the twist makes much sense and worse, it seriously disrupts the otherwise steady flow of the film.

In contrast, I did find that the unexpectedly non-cynical ending fit nicely with the overall tone of the movie.  There’s something oddly appealing to the logic in the film that an interview for a position of an astronaut should only involve genetic testing because there’s no point in investing in a candidate who is predisposed to a heart disease.  Yet this notion is also intrinsically discomforting.  Such logic doesn’t take into account the best of what humanity has to offer in qualities like effort, persistence, drive and empathy, and we all like to believe that these intangibles matter.  There may not be any particularly memorable moments in “Gattaca,” but the entire 108 minute experience is ultimately quite satisfying because, in the reminder that there is more to the human race than being genetically superior, the film doesn’t leave the audience too disturbed with the questions that it provokes.


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