Andrew Niccol is best-known for writing The Truman Show (1998), but that’s one of the few screenplays he didn’t direct himself. Gattaca launched his career on a quieter note the year before, paving the way for a run of high-concept sci-fi stories that peaked early with Truman and have mostly floundered with audiences since Simone (2002). You may not even remember In Time (2011) with Justin Timberlake, or Anon (2018) with Clive Owen. All his movies have one thing in common: they’re intelligent stories about ordinary people caught up in a future society’s technological problems.
Gattaca takes place in a “near future” where science has made it possible for parents to conceive children with optimal genetic makeup. Such babies are known as “valids”, while those born using old-fashioned chance are designated “in-valid”. One such in-valid is Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), the eldest son of a middle-class couple who didn’t have him genetically selected, so he’s myopic and expected to die of heart failure in his early-thirties. His younger brother, Anton (Loren Dean), was conceived using scientific selection, which only heightens their sibling rivalry because Vincent’s angry his little brother’s destined to enjoy a more privileged life through no fault of his own.
The plot truly gets underway with flashbacks explaining how in-valid Vincent, in adulthood, is now known as Jerome Morrow and working at the prestigious Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. We quickly learn he’s impersonating the real Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), who was injured in an accident and lost the use of his legs. So in order to keep himself in the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, the original Jerome (who now goes by Eugene to ease confusion), dutifully provides Vincent with daily samples of his skin, hair, blood, and urine, in order for his able-bodied stand-in to pass Gattaca’s biomedical testing and achieve his dream of travelling to the moon of Titan. However, a murder at the facility brings unwanted attention from the police, in the form of lead investigator Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin), who start to uncover evidence that someone working at Gattaca isn’t who they claim to be…
Whatever your thoughts are on Gattaca, it’s hard to deny the power and intrigue of Niccol’s central premise. In the 1990s, news often contained stories about cloned animals and genetically-modified food, so Gattaca ran with those talking points and offered a warning of how dangerous this emerging science could be if applied to predetermining human life. Today it’s common for doctors to check for certain genetic anomalies, and mothers have the option to abort unborn babies whose lives may not be easy (even if that remains a contentious point of discussion pitting religion against science). It’s increasingly easy to believe Gattaca’s vision of a cosy dystopia may come to pass, if eugenics can ensure humanity is largely fit and healthy. But this story is a warning that science has its limitations, and less fortunate folk working menial jobs simply because of their double helix may have a spirit and motivation that can’t be predetermined in a lab.
Ethan Hawke had already made the successful jump from 1980s child star with Explorers (1985) and Dead Poets Society (1989), to a younger actor drawn to smaller indie projects like Reality Bites (1994) and Before Sunrise (1995). Gattaca gave him a more mainstream role at the time, but it was still independently-spirited and ultimately a box office disappointment (only grossing $12M from a $36M budget). Hawke’s choices as an actor have always been interesting and he’s certainly good as Jerome, which isn’t a showboating role and relies on creating a sense of drama by communicating his character’s quiet rage propelling him forward in life. There’s a recurring image of Jerome having a swimming competition with his younger and fitter brother, which works particularly well to dramatise a sense of rivalry, while also evoking the idea of sperm competing to be first.
This was also an early film role for Jude Law, who came to Hollywood’s attention thanks to this and Wilde (1997) the same year, before The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) put him on the path to A-list stardom. He’s also good as Eugene, a man who suffered a different kind of failure; one of pure circumstance and bad luck, as not even science can predict a tragic accident. Law has good chemistry with Hawke and the movie’s at its most enjoyable when both are trying to keep their lies a secret from society.
Uma Thurman has the less interesting role as a stern Gattaca employee called Irene Cassini, who’s drawn to Eugene for his apparently alpha males qualities, before coming to realise someone’s personality says more about him than his genotype. Thurman had come to prominence in the mid-’90s, particularly after Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) became a cultural phenomenon, and Gattaca was the creative highlight of a career-threatening period containing notorious upsets Batman & Robin (1997) and The Avengers (1998). It was probably for the best Thurman took a career break to have children in the late-’90s, before reasserting herself with Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2002-03) duology. And if Gattaca wasn’t the robust hit she needed in ’97, I’m sure a consolation was meeting her second husband Ethan Hawke on-set.
Niccol certainly directs his own screenplay in a compelling fashion, fortunate to have Academy Award-winning art direction to point his camera at. It’s not the most revolutionary of dystopian visions, but at the time audiences were more accustomed to Mad Max (1979) and Escape from New York (1981) visions of awful futures. (Maybe Ernest Borgnine’s supporting role is a subtle nod to the latter?) Gattaca’s unfair society is more interesting in some ways, as nobody here’s a terrible person, they’ve just collectively agreed that alpha’s should get the top jobs and everyone else makes do with what’s left. It’s a caste system everyone’s accepted, but is fundamentally racism at a microscopic level.
So it’s a compelling experience to see one man try to beat the system, for no other reason than to fulfil a personal ambition to go into space. Quite unexpectedly, Gattaca doesn’t follow the expected path of a single man somehow overturning the unfair system, or opening everyone’s eyes Logan’s Run (1976) style. Maybe it would have been more of a crowd-pleaser if the scope had been that large, but this is actually a lot more believable. There’s the feeling Vincent’s actions are the tiny steps necessary to start changing minds, one at a time.
There are certainly flaws to Gattaca’s premise when one stops to think about it. Why is Eugene’s life under threat of ruin, when there are surely thousands of jobs that don’t require the need to walk? Jerome does mention how they’d be equals in space because of the zero gravity, but Gattaca doesn’t really want to make you think about the madness of a high-tech future where not being able to walk still matters. If anything, this society seems to value intelligence and longevity more than it does athleticism. There’s also a dumb sequence when Eugene has to pretend to be Jerome to investigators coming to his house, and I still don’t understand why the cop who speaks to him doesn’t notice Eugene looks completely different to Jerome’s picture. Or why Eugene hauls himself up a spiral staircase, as if being on the first floor somehow matters. He could just as easily sat on a sofa downstairs and fooled the detective just as easily.
I also wonder if the story might have benefitted from making Vincent more visibly inferior in terms of inherited defects. His heart issues are mentioned, he’s naturally shortsighted, and he undergoes painful leg surgery to increase his height, but he still outwardly looks like a male model. It might have been more entertaining if Vincent was prematurely balding, overweight, and had to be given a dramatic physical makeover, because it makes me laugh whenever Gattaca contrasts a photo of Vincent with “Eugene”—as the only difference is Ethan Hawke’s wearing glasses in one and has clearly been told to smile goofily for the camera.
However, it’s easy to pick faults and ponder improvements a few decades later, when other films have undoubtedly added to some of Gattaca’s themes and shown fresh ways the concept could have been explorer more. The murder-mystery isn’t compelling and the second act drags a little, but there’s no denying the wealth of ideas here and how beautifully presented they are. Gattaca makes you think, it stirs post-viewing debate, and it benefits from being a personal story about an underdog out to prove his detractors wrong, even if most won’t even know he succeeded.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying me a coffee.
USA | 1997 | 106 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • ESPERANTO
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:
Gattaca was shot on Super 35 format film using ARRIFLEX and Moviecam cameras, so Sony’s 4K Ultra HD release scanned the original negative to create a new digital intermediate with fresh colour grading and High Dynamic Range (HDR10). It retains its filmic quality with crisp details and some inherent film grain, but it’s never a distraction. The HDR gives this new release a boost over the older Blu-ray, thanks to deeper blacks and brighter spectral highlights. It’s not the type of movie you’ll reach for to impress friends, but fans of the movie will appreciate how handsome it looks.
There’s a welcome Dolby Atmos soundtrack on this 4K disc, which is most noticeable during the opening extreme close-up of falling nail clippings and a later rocket take-off. But it mostly provides a more convincing sense of atmosphere for the story’s environments, rather than a particularly aggressive surround sound experience to knock your socks off. Michael Nyman’s orchestral score is beautifully realised too, and dialogue is always clear and precise.
The extra features aren’t anything to get excited about, and it’s a shame the opportunity wasn’t taken to shoot new material with Andrew Niccol and the cast looking back at what was a formative movie for all of them.
- Deleted Scenes & Blooper Reel. The outtakes are amusing enough, but of low visual quality, and most of the deleted scenes were justifiably left out of the film.
- Welcome to Gattaca Featurette (HD, 22 mins). A brief Making Of documentary that isn’t too enlightening but enjoyable enough.
- Do Not Alter? (SD, 14 mins.) A short documentary narrated by Gore Vidal about the science behind the film’s premise.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Andrew Niccol.
starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law, Loren Dean & Ernest Borgnine.