Gattaca movie review: and you thought political correctness was annoying

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If Shakespeare was alive today and writing science fiction, he might come up with something like the dystopian Gattaca.

Gattaca is real SF, not to be confused with the likes of ArmageddonGattaca uses the conceits of science fiction not as an excuse for some really cool explosions but to explore what it means to be human.

“Jerome Morrow” (Ethan Hawke) works at a company called Gattaca, helping plan a manned mission to Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) on which he also expects to be a crew member. In this not-too-distant future, genetics determines everything — where you go to school, where you work, whom you marry — and Jerome was destined for Titan from before he was even born.

But in this world where people have a sample of a lover’s saliva tested to gauge compatibility, where workers are given a quick blood test before they’re even allowed into the office, Jerome has some odd habits. He fastidiously cleans his workspace, then places a single strand of hair on a comb in his desk drawer. In the privacy of his home, he straps a bag of urine around his leg in preparation for a mandatory test.

It turns out that Jerome Morrow is not Jerome Morrow — he is Vincent Anton Freeman (think The Prisoner‘s “I am not a number, I am a free man!”). Everyone around him was artificially conceived to be perfect — Vincent’s was a “faith birth,” which left him with myopia, the possibility of heart problems, and — gasp! — lefthandedness. He was shut out of school for insurance reasons, but even self-taught, the only job he could get was that of janitor at Gattaca — he’s part of an underclass made up not of those with the wrong skin color but those with imperfect genes.

Until Vincent meets a dealer in new lives (Tony Shalhoub, of Men in Black and Big Night), who sets him up with Jerome Morrow (Wilde‘s Jude Law), who was perfection itself until he broke his back. Now, confined to a wheelchair, he lends his identity to Vincent, who must carry samples of Jerome’s blood, urine, hair, and skin around for the constant random identity checks everyone endures.

All is going well until a murder takes place at Gattaca. The police sweep in with all their genetic-testing equipment, and Vincent/Jerome’s deception is finally in danger of being exposed.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (writer of The Truman Show), Gattaca‘s is a simple story, pared to its bare essentials and no more, brilliant in execution, and visually stunning, beautifully shot in gorgeous golds and browns and greens. As uncomplicated as it is, however, it doesn’t let the viewer off easy. There’s one moment, for example, after we’ve been watching the detectives investigating the murder for a while, that you suddenly realize that it’s the younger cop (Loren Dean), the genetically correct one, who’s in charge, and not the older one (Alan Arkin) as we’ve been assuming. It’s rare that a film can successfully play against the viewer’s expectations like that, and make it work within the context of the story.

Gattaca shares some similar themes with The Truman Show. Niccol uses water as a metaphor in both, as a test of strength for his characters — here, the young Vincent challenges his genetically perfect brother Anton to ocean swimming races, and when Vincent eventually beats him, he takes that as proof that he can do other things he’s been told are impossible for him. Like Truman Burbank, Vincent/Jerome lives a life under scrutiny, although Vincent is aware of the eyes watching him. Both films ponder the age-old debate of free will versus predestination, and how self-fulfilling prophecies hold us back. When a Gattaca coworker (Uma Thurman) does something she tells Vincent/Jerome that she’s “not supposed to do” because her genes tell her she can’t, Vincent says, “But you did it.”

And like The Truman Show, Gattaca ends with a new beginning for its lead character, and the hint that there are cracks in a society that may lead to its downfall.

Andrew Niccol is a man to watch. I can’t wait for his next movie.

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