Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

GATTACA (1997) **

Written and directed by Andrew M. Niccol. Produced by Danny DeVito et al. Photography, Slawomir Idziak. Editing,Lisa Zeno Churgin. Production design, Jan Roelfs .Music, Michael Nyman. Cast: Ethan Hawke (Vincent/Jerome), Uma Thurman (Irene Cassini), Gore Vidal (Director Josef), Xander Berkeley (Lama), Jayne Brook (Marie), Elias Koteas (Antonio), Blair Underwood (Geneticist), Mason Gamble (Younger Vincent), Vincent Nielson (Younger Anton), Chad Christ (Young Vincent), William Lee Scott (Young Anton), Clarence Graham (Personnel Officer), Ernest Borgnine (Caesar, the top janitor), Tony Shalhoub (German,the black-marketeer), Jude Law(Jerome/Eugene Morrow, Alan Arkin (Hugo Coldspring), Carlton Benbry (Gattaca Hoover), Loren Dean (Investigator/Anton Freeman), et al. A Sony/Columbia film. 106 min. PG-13.
Released in 1936, and just a stone's throw away from World War II, the futuristic 1936 movie "Things to Come," from a much earlier novel by H.G.Wells, was a vision of disastrous conflicts that were much later followed by the new, utopian start of the space age. "Gattaca," set "in a not too distant future", does not have a such a redemptive conclusion.

Life in it is pretty dreary. Genetic engineering divides people --at least the limited groups we see, in two : the elite and all the others. The elite comes from those babies that were created in vitro. They are all perfect specimens. The rest , conceived in the nice old-fashioned way (including the back seat of automobiles), are, like us, all born with weaknesses that are predicted by immediate tests.

Of two brothers born respectively via the new and the old method, Anton will join the Valid people's favored class, Vincent the In-Valids, the hoi polloi. There is sibling rivalry. From his earliest years, Vincent dreams of becoming a space explorer but realizing that he has the chance of a snowball in hell, becomes bitter, albeit wonderfully well self-taught. Like a few others (how many, we never learn), he eventually rebels against the system. His tactic is "if you can't lick them, join them).

He hires a "DNA broker" whose illegal business is to have In-Valids assume the genetic identity of Valids. For me this echoes the oft-made old film "Imitation of Life," (from the Fannie Hurst novel), in which Claudette Colbert (and later Lana Turner), had a black friend whose daughter's complexion allowed the girl to "pass" for white. There is also "Pinky" and other films.

In "Gattaca" this passing is called "a borrowed ladder." Vincent, modified in sundry ways, borrows his identity from Jerome, a cynical, sad, boozing former Silver Medalist swimmer, now wheelchair-bound after an accident. He trades identities with Vincent and provides him with samples of blood and urine. These are routinely, constantly used for identification.

As "Jerome," Vincent goes from janitor to scientist, joins the aerospace (plus more, but this remains hazy) corporation called Gattaca, and hopes to be among the chosen astronauts for a coming exploration of the planet Titan. His impersonation is not without suspense yet works out until a director of Gattaca is murdered. This brings in the police and heats things up for our hero.

Much has been made in the media about "Gattaca" being a sci-fi picture that shuns the deja vu effects, blasts, chases, shootings, ray-guns, morphing and such of the contemporary sci-fi genre. There is, indeed, merit in a picture that shifts gears from high to low in order to offer us a variant of dystopia based on class distinctions. The film keeps the gadgetry down, though not entirely out. It creates a sterile (rather than frightening) atmosphere through people who act like semi-zombies, all in identical business suits and moving in near lock-step.

There's much hidden irony here in the parallels with the hordes of similarly desk-bound office-workers, whether in real life or in older (I'd say pre-1960s) pictures. But "Gattaca" almost unremittingly takes itself seriously. The "humorous relief" items that I remember are two. In one, a pianist plays a Schubert "Moment Musical," then is revealed to have 12 fingers. The other bit is linguistic. The terms for investigators are "J. Edgars" or "Hoovers," doubly witty expressions since "to hoover" in British English means to vacuum-clean.

In investigations, everything is "hoovered," as a single human hair or flake of skin can prove the real identity of a suspect. To protect himself Vincent-Jerome engages in lengthy, vigorous ablutions to remove particles of skin. But this is a patent impossibility and a flaw in the movie's reasoning.

"Gattaca" is a high-concept film that tries to be an un-silly think-movie too. Both ideas work, but feebly. Beyond the DNA premise we just don't have enough --or any-- information about the minds, psyches, life or non-life of the people; about the form of government; about anything else beyond the narrow focus of Vincent's ambitions, and so on.

More attention is paid to the look of things than to their substance. No doubt, the stage settings are good in their oppressive monotony, uniformity, curves (rather than angles), dull colors and low light levels--the latter typical of places where computers do not require strong ambient light. No doubt there is superior camera work by the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski's favorite cinematographer. But the rhythm is too languid; there are enough holes to drain spaghetti through; a certain, mixed retro look that includes cars and a depressing ballroom sequence goes unexplained, as well as other sights.

In no order of importance, here are some other weaknesses. The return to obligatory cliches with the inclusion of Vincent's unexciting affair with co-worker Uma Thurman who is more decorative than functional. The answer to who was the killer, which I guessed effortlessly. Repetitions that include the musical score. The lack of edge-of-seat suspense. The improbable revelation that a major character bore close kinship to another person. The lack of dimensionality of characters.

Like an increasing number of first-feature makers --often promising--writer-director Andrew Niccol comes from the world of commercials. (He is a New Zealander who made them in England). His background may explain the lack of depth of this cautionary tale. The film is by no means a failure, but as food for thought, it is a Continental breakfast rather than a four-course meal of high cuisine.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel