Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: October 24, 1997
Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Genre: Drama / Romance / Sci-Fi
“Gattaca” is the smart, thrilling feature film debut for writer and director Andrew Niccol. The film features Ethan Hawke as Vincent, a man who is born naturally into a world where the genetically enhanced maintain a strict upper-class status. In the world of “Gattaca” people are born in two ways, either genetically enhanced or naturally. The naturally born people are labeled as “Invalid.” These people are subject to disease, lower IQs and bad eye sight. The “Valid” people, those of the upper class, are bred to be smarter, taller and more beautiful. Vincent is an Invalid who refuses to accept a lesser status in society. He dreams of becoming an astronaut, a job that is available exclusively to the Valid members of society.
Despite his best efforts to prove himself worthy, Vincent is relegated to the job of janitor at Gattaca Corporation, the company that sends astronauts on exploration missions. Rather than relegate himself to the fate he’s dealt, Vincent engages the services of a genetic broker who introduces him to Eugene, played by Jude Law, a Valid who is also a paraplegic as a result of a car accident. Prior to the accident, Eugene was known as Jerome, a champion swimmer. Vincent assumes Eugene’s Jerome identity and quickly becomes first in line for a space mission to one of Saturn’s moons at Gattaca.
Part of the beauty of “Gattaca” is in Niccol’s telling of the strength of the human spirit. Vincent is born into the world with every disadvantage. To maintain his genetically superior alter-ego, he exists in a constant state of paranoia. His saliva, eyelashes, hair, body cells, blood and urine can all give him away in a second. Vincent is very careful to scrub his skin nearly raw every morning to remove all dead skin cells. He then lights a furnace to burn off any residue of who he really is in the shower. He takes a bag of Eugene’s urine with him to work every day in case of testing. He wears fake fingerprints superimposed over his own, and one of them contains the drop of blood he needs to access Gattaca Corporation every day. Vincent even undergoes a painful leg lengthening process to help him assume the Jerome identity.
Despite having to take on these challenges, Vincent is a determined man who lets no obstacle stand in his way, not even when an executive at Gattaca is killed and a stray eyelash makes Vincent the janitor the number one suspect. Throughout the film, Vincent is meticulous to maintain his identity as Jerome. However, since Vincent cannot borrow Eugene’s enhanced intelligence, he is compelled to work harder than others to ensure his work’s perfection. He also places one of Eugene’s hairs on his comb for his suspicious coworker and potential love interest Irene, played by Uma Thurman, to find and test.
The cast of “Gattaca” gives an authentic performance that helps bring the world of the not-too-distant future to life in a way that audiences can relate to and believe. Thurman’s Irene is the female model of perfection with unfortunately low test scores that cannot advance further at Gattaca Corporation than her current position. She is tall, serenely beautiful, naturally suspicious and is portrayed as coldly indifferent to the plight of the Invalids. As Eugene, Law demonstrates the emotional pain and melancholy that even the most privileged can feel when their dreams die. Eugene is portrayed as lonely, angry and defeated by life. He is willing to help Vincent because he feels that it is a way that he can live on and that they can both go to space. Law’s final scene in the film is emotionally heart-wrenching, but it feels like the inevitable conclusion for the character.
Gattaca officials, portrayed by Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine, help to display the immense social divide between the Valids and Invalids. Vincent, as the janitor, is immediately a suspect in the murder of a Gattaca executive simply because of his Invalid status and his genetic material being somewhere that it shouldn’t have been. The races and sexes seem to be equal in the film’s alternate world, but the premise of the movie relies strongly on the bias between social classes. Expert costuming by Colleen Atwood and the clinical, sparse sets help to further increase this divide in the minds of audiences.
At its core, “Gattaca” is a social commentary about how far people go to overcome their circumstances. Despite facing innumerable odds, Vincent finds an unlikely way to overcome the limitations he was born with and succeed in a world that sees him as nothing but a menial laborer. Through his perseverance, he opens the eyes of others around him to issues in their world’s society and the fact that the Invalids may have just as much to offer the world as their Valid counterparts.
“Gattaca” is enjoying as a thriller, with the audience on the edge of their seats wondering what simple mistake threatens to give Vincent away. The romantic tension between Vincent and Irene is palpable, but it plays a minor part in the overall storyline of the film. The film’s showpiece is the relationship between Vincent and Eugene, two members of different classes who become best friends through extreme circumstances. They each need each other to live as they desire. Vincent wants to reach his dreams, and Eugene wants to find a way to live past the accident that rendered him damaged in a world of perfection. “Gattaca” is a poignant, beautiful drama that demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit and leaves audiences questioning the development of the world around them.