Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke (Vincent Freeman/Jerome), Uma Thurman (Irene Cassini), Jude Law (Jerome Morrow), Alan Arkin (Detective Hugo), Loren Dean (Lead Investigator), Gore Vidal (Director Josef)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1997
Country: U.S.
Gattaca Blu-Ray
GattacaWho are we really? What is it about us that makes us who we are? Are all our traits coded into our cells, or is there something deeper and more mysterious? Can each person’s potential be determined with a drop of blood or a flake of skin? Simply put, are we the sum of our genetics, or are there greater possibilities?

These are the gnawing philosophical questions posed by Gattaca, an intriguing film that, along with Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, helped mark a long awaited return in the late 1990s to the realm of intelligent science fiction. Like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, writer/director Andrew Niccol uses the convention of the science fiction narrative to ponder nagging questions about the human dilemma. In this case, the questions go to the very root of our physical existence and dig away at the notions that science knows all.

The film takes place in “the not too distant future,” where natural childbirth has become a historical relic. Instead, parents scientifically match all their best genes in the laboratory, ensuring that their child not only has the perfect eye color, hair color, and skin tones, but is free from any genetic dispositions toward disease or weakness. As one doctor puts it, “It’s still you. It’s just the best of you.” Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is one of the last people to have been born naturally, which makes him a so-called “in-valid.” Born with a congenital heart defect, he is told from an early age that he will never be able to fulfill his dreams of being an astronaut because there are hundreds of other “perfect” applicants to choose from. No matter how hard he studies and works, it is all in vain because all anyone cares about is his genetic code (although it is technically illegal to discriminate on such a basis, “genoism” is still rampant). He is not and never will be a “valid.”

After spending a few years doing menial work as a janitor, Vincent decides to go for broke and assume the genetic identity of a valid man. An underground business sets him up with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a British man who is genetically perfect, but has been paralyzed from the waist down in a car wreck. Jerome supplies Vincent with blood samples, urine specimens, flakes of skin, locks of hair--anything that will convince the tests that Vincent is a valid. One of the film’s subtle and pointed jokes is that Vincent and Jerome look similar, but not so similar that a close look at a photograph would give away their ruse; yet, that never happens because identity is no longer associated with external appearance, only internal genetic code.

By assuming Jerome’s genetic identity, Vincent is able to get a job at the mega-corporation Gattaca, where he will soon realize his dream of going into space. Along the way he meets a beautiful co-worker, Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), who confides in him that her sole flaw is a slight heart problem. Although Vincent wants to sympathize with her, he can never betray his true genetic make-up because that would mean the end of his lifelong dream of traveling in space. All is going well until the mission commander at Gattaca is brutally murdered, and one of Vincent’s eyelashes is found at the scene by two investigating police officers (Alan Arkin and Loren Dean). Of course, when it’s tested, Vincent’s face and name appear on the screen and not Jerome’s, and the hunt begins.

Written and directed by first-timer Andrew Niccol (who would go on to more acclaim the next year with his screenplay for The Truman Show), Gattaca has enough suspense and pacing to stand as a thriller, but more than enough philosophical and moral questions to make it intellectually stimulating. The film has a unique and immediately memorable visual palette that belies its limited budget. Two European masters, production designer Jan Roelfs (a frequent collaborator with Peter Greenaway) and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak (a frequent collaborator with Krzysztof Kieslowski), create a convincing portrait of a recognizable future with a limited amount of special effects and a creative use of pre-existing buildings. Instead of glutting the screen with digital wizardry, they rely on a mix of stark futuristic and Gothic architecture, filmed with yellow and blue filters to give everything an otherworldly hue. Outside, everything seems slightly scorched, while everything inside is cool and sterile.

Of course, the film is not without its minor flaws. The murder mystery gets wrapped up far too easily with a suddenly appearing piece of evidence, and some aspects of the relationship between Hawke and Thurman feel underdeveloped. At its best, Gattaca makes you ponder about serious questions of identity and why we are who we are. It is almost like a futuristic variation of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), with Vincent and Jerome literally becoming one person, their identity a fused amalgam of Vincent’s life and Jerome’s genes. There is a telling scene where Irene, having just discovered the secret, is looking at Jerome in the foreground, when Vincent walks up behind him. The camera shifts focus between the two men, and it is immediately clear that it is becoming hard to differentiate who is who. Society has taught her to view everyone by their genes, so when she isn’t sure of Vincent’s genetic make-up, she can no longer relate to him as a human being.

In Gattaca, the ideals of a man’s soul have been displaced by the science of cells. It doesn’t matter who you want to be--you can only be who the scientists tell you you are. In many ways, this film can be seen as an allegory for current problems of racial and ethnic discrimination. Early in the film, Vincent tells us in a voice-over narration that skin color doesn’t matter anymore, that genetic make-up has become the ultimate form of discrimination. As he puts it, society has gotten it down to a science, which is the scariest idea of all.

Gattaca Special Edition Blu-Ray
Gattaca is also available on Special Edition DVD (SRP $19.94)
Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Surround
  • Subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
  • “Welcome to Gattaca” retrospective featurette
  • “Do Not Alter?” featurette
  • Original making-of featurette
  • Deleted scenes and outtake
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 11, 2008

    In full 1080p high-definition, Gattaca looks better than ever, which is particularly important for a film in which surfaces are so crucial to the story. The image is smooth and crisp without losing its filmlike texture, and colors looks beautiful and natural. The interior shots have hues of striking icy blue, while the exterior shots are burnished with lovely shades of gold and orange. The film’s darker scenes are also extremely well done, with perfect black levels and excellent shadow detail. The uncompressed Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is also excellent, enveloping you in Michael Nyman’s gorgeous musical score. Much of the film is dialogue and subtle sound effects, but there are several scenes in which the surround tracks are particularly effective, including the scene in which Vincent must cross a busy highway without his contact lenses.
    Despite the “Special Edition” banner, there are only a few new supplements to this edition of Gattaca. The primary new edition is a solid 22-minute retrospective featurette “Welcome to Gattaca,” which provides a nice overview of the film’s production and its lasting impact. There is some good behind-the-scenes footage and new interviews with actor Ethan Hawke, producer Danny De Vito, editor Lisa Churgin, and visual effects supervisor Chris Watts, among others. The other new featurette is “Do Not Alter?” (15 min.), a rather sobering examination of the ethical issues involved in genetic research and cloning narrated by Gore Vidal. The other supplements--six deleted scenes, a rather unexpectedly hilarious outtake, and a 1997 making-of featurette--were all included on a previous DVD edition.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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