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Gattaca

(This review originally appeared in the October 23-29, 1997, Long Island Voice.)

Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels

Gattaca is a good example of an all too rare science fiction film: It has both style and substance.

Set in the not too distant future, the set up is a prime example of good intentions going horribly awry. Today’s developments in understanding genetic code, the tendencies carried with it and "fixing" problems will eventually lead to a world where discrimination is focused on the DNA level. Everyone falls into one of two categories: valid and invalid. "Invalids" are the ones unlucky enough to have been conceived naturally and therefore can inherit all sorts of undesirable tendencies in the genetic dice roll. "Valids" are those who had undesirable tendencies from heart defects to obesity to a tendency toward violence weeded out in the laboratory. Only the best of both parents are combined for the child.

Yet unlike the Orwellian future Gattaca invokes, such choices are not mandated by a "Big Brother" selectively screening people. Rather, caring parents who want to give their children the best chances in life opt for clinical conception, thereby creating a two-tier system in which the have-nots can never, ever become haves.

Good science fiction usually makes us either (A) think about the long-term results of today’s actions or (B) think about the essence of humanity and its indomitable will. As such, Gattaca focuses on Vincent, an invalid who assumed that a few possibly negative genetic tendencies would relegate him to janitor at the Gattaca space facility rather than being the engineer/astronaut he dreamed. Then one day, he manages to do something that his genetically superior brother can’t, and Vincent starts thinking outside the box. Yet how can he pose as a valid when regular tests of skin samples and hair left behind in every day living will prove him a fraud?

Eventually Vincent connects with a shadowy broker who can help. In this world, the DNA of a crippled but genetically perfect valid is worth a great deal. So Vincent becomes Jerome, an athlete injured outside the country so it was never recorded. Through various devices Vincent can give a drop of Jerome’s blood or a urine sample. In exchange, Vincent keeps Jerome in the style to which he has become accustomed. In short order, Vincent is working in Gattaca and scheduled for the next mission to Titan, but it all could come tumbling down when the facility director is murdered and one of Vincent’s eyelashes is found in a corridor.

Visually, Gattaca fits visions of the future seen in The Prisoner, Brazil and Blade Runner — sleek, stylish retro futuristic. Without any whiz bang special effects, Gattaca presents a future that is sophisticated and believable.

When it comes to substance, Gattaca still works. Considering the regular stories about parents who push to get their children into the "right" pre-K program, which in turn will lead to other "right" schools or force the children in certain activities that look good on a Harvard application, it’s totally creditable that parent would choose to eliminate a child’s tendencies to cancer or heart defects. Is it that far a leap to also eliminate the need for glasses or tendencies to obesity or addiction? I don’t think so.

Tying the story to a murder investigation was a smart choice, otherwise this could have become an exercise in "what if." It’s plain that Vincent had little reason to kill the director, so who did? And how might the evidence still unmask him? And what does that say about weeding out tendencies toward violence?

Gattaca really only has three problems. First, a bad marketing campaign that confuses or turns off its potential audience. Second, it’s a while into the film before you realize that "Gattaca" refers to the space exploration facility, and it’s never clear if it’s a private company or government operation. The third item is a small glitch that’s tied to a plot twist. In fact, the glitch is so minor, I think a sentence of clarification was dropped during editing.

Gattaca is a rare film: A science fiction cat-and-mouse game as well as one without explosions. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.

 

Review 1997 Long Island Voice. Accompanying photographs  1997 Columbia Pictures.

 

 

 

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