Written & Directed by Andrew Niccol
During my college years, I knew a couple of people that loved Gattaca. My first time watching it was around 2005, and I have to say I wasn’t left highly impressed. There has always been something empty about the film that I don’t think was intentional. That said, it has undoubtedly had a significant influence on science fiction films that have come out since, mainly with aesthetics. I think the themes of the movie don’t get explored in a way that feels satisfying. The ending feels like a bit of a letdown, and I don’t think the characters’ arcs are resolved in ways that make sense.
Sometime in the near future, genetic engineering has enabled a society based entirely around eugenics. Parents predetermine their child’s strengths while eliminating their weaknesses while it’s still just a fetus. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was not conceived in this manner and is one of what this society calls an “invalid.” He is predisposed to have a severe heart condition that will likely take his life around 30. Vincent, however, desires to go to the stars as an astronaut. The program only accepts those with impeccable genetic profiles, so Vincent pays to take the identity of a valid.
This is Jerome (Jude Law), who was an Olympic swimmer that became paralyzed in an accident. Jerome uses Vincent to keep the money coming in to live the life he has become accustomed to. Vincent can be Jerome and get a job at Gattaca, a prestigious space exploration organization. The plan goes awry when one of the higher-ups is found murdered in his office. Vincent doesn’t seem phased, as he’s been meticulous about sprinkling skin flakes and ashes from Jerome around his workstation while making sure he sheds none of his own. However, the police discover one of Vincent’s eyelashes, and the search for the invalid at Gattaca begins. He does find an ally in Irene (Uma Thurman), who begins to suspect he may not be the person he claims.
I think the tension in Gattaca is delivered quite expertly. Once the stakes & rules are established, we’re shown the eyelash sitting on a windowsill, and it becomes a ticking clock to see when the police identify Vincent. There’s also tension surrounding Irene, who I think at some moments we are expected to view as a potential murder suspect. She’s becoming acutely aware that something is off with Vincent and even gets one of the hairs he’s placed in his drawer. We learn that people can randomly gene check anyone as a woman has her lips swabbed during that scene. It’s implied she just kissed a man she likes and wants to know his genetic predeterminers before taking the relationship further.
This film is much more in line with some classic science fiction movies. It is a commentary about contemporary society through the lens of an imagined future. I’m not quite sure what the themes are other than eugenics is bad. They are right, but I don’t understand how this relates to contemporary society as a whole. I know American society certainly discards or reduces disabled people regularly, but I don’t see the connections being made strongly to what happens in Gattaca. The crux of the story centers on what Vincent is expected to be able to do and how he exceeds that. If the film picked something more specific and built this metaphor up around it, then the themes might hit more powerfully.
I certainly think there’s a space here to make a film about class systems and birthright. You have characters born into predetermined success while others languish outside of that structure. It’s muddled by the inclusion of Vincent’s brother, which shows our protagonist coming from a family that had the choice to predetermine his genetic future. If Vincent’s family had been too poor to afford those procedures, that might have been one thing, but his being born flawed was a choice, not something forced onto them. Jerome was enough of a foil for Vincent in the story, and their relationship should have been developed even further. The way Jerome’s arc is wrapped up is probably one of the least satisfying things in the picture, in my opinion. It felt like a convenient moment for the plot and Vincent’s arc, but I just couldn’t understand why Jerome did it. The relationship with Irene is also closed casually and doesn’t have a significant bearing on the overarching plot. I admire the film trying to push a message centered around determination and not allowing societal expectations to hold you back, but I ultimately felt very cold when the credits rolled.