‘Gattaca’ portrays a chilly, chilling future in which one’s fate is decoded from DNA

February 11, 2013

Literature and film are full of tales of people who steal, borrow or exchange identities. Few have been as carefully thought out as Gattaca, the futuristic 1997 drama written and directed by Andrew Niccol.

The protagonist is one Jerome Morrow, né Vincent Freeman. His parents chose to conceive him without using genetic engineering to select helpful traits and weed out unhelpful ones. A heart defect, detected nearly instantaneously by genetic scanners that seem to be ubiquitous in Gattaca’s near-future setting, prevents Freeman from realizing his dearest dream, which is to be an astronaut.

But Freeman finds a way to cheat. One Jerome Morrow sells his genetic identity to Freeman; having been paralyzed from the waist down, there’s no other way for Morrow to fund his decadent lifestyle.

The two become uneasy roommates and doppelgängers; Freeman mimics Morrow’s hairstyle and has surgery to lengthen his legs to match the recorded height of the man he is impersonating. Morrow diligently collects dead skin, blood and urine that Freeman dispenses as needed to pass for a man with a princely genome.

But Freeman’s subterfuge is jeopardized just days before he is scheduled to depart for a year-long mission to explore one of Saturn’s moons. When an official at Freeman’s organization, Gattaca, is murdered, cops arrive to vacuum up physical evidence. A loose eyelash indicates the presence of Freeman, who isn’t officially cleared to be on site. Thus the protagonist becomes the target of a most inconvenient manhunt.

To complicate matters, Freeman strikes up a flirtation with a co-worker, Irene Cassini, that heats up quickly. At the very moment Freeman should be most eager to shed his Earthly ties, his heart finds itself moving on an unexpected trajectory. 

The film’s writer-director, New Zealand native Andrew Niccol, has given extensive thought to crafting a society in which DNA determines destiny. Although some laws have been passed that now would seem to prevent this potential future from becoming reality, many parts of Gattaca seem frighteningly plausible.

Niccol’s conception of genome as destiny involves a society bound by scientifically delineated castes. The ambitious workers at Gattaca are a mass of strivers who prize stoicism. Virtually every space in the film is immaculate, having been cleaned and polished to a fault.

Unfortunately, the problem with movies grounded in Victorian settings such as this is that their atmosphere of moral repression is oppressive to the viewer. As legitimately clever and engaging as Gattaca is, it doesn’t entirely rise above this problem.

Still, the relationship between Freeman and Morrow engaged me. Morrow, embittered by his partial paralysis as well as his prior failings in life, is initially derisive of his would-be impostor. Freeman’s determination to evade seemingly impenetrable barriers is also captivating. Plus, I enjoyed by the cat-and-mouse game between Freeman and his nameless police pursuers. The uneasy relationship between the by-the-book young head detective and his older, more intuitive and highly experienced subordinate is also involving.

The murder mystery is resolved near the story’s end in a fashion so tidy that at first I found it unsatisfying. But Niccol has some other business to pursue: a somewhat forced confrontation between Freeman and an antagonist that stretches credulity but yields some absolutely gorgeous footage.

Similarly, the fateful late-story choice that another character makes struck me as being unmotivated by anything other than the writer-director’s desire to put certain images on screen. And sadly, Cassini is less person than plot device: a beautiful but remote love interest for the protagonist to pursue.

Still, another last-minute encounter between two characters turns in an intriguing direction. Alas, Niccol steps on the moment with (sigh) some narration — evidence of the difficulty he had finding the right way to conclude his film.

The film’s cast is superb, led by Ethan Hawke as Freeman, Jude Law as Morrow and Uma Thurman as Cassini. Niccol’s supporting characters are played by a multitude of glamorous names. There’s Gore Vidal as a Gattaca official, Tony Shalhoub as a sort of illicit gene broker, Ernest Borgnine as a Gattaca head janitor named Caesar, Blair Underwood (wearing a beard and looking quite unlike his L.A. Law days) as a geneticist, Elias Koteas and Alan Arkin as the head homicide detectives, and Xander Berkeley as an amiable Gattaca physician. (Professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece also makes a cameo as a trainer.) 

But this film lives and dies by its story, and ultimately, Gattaca is only partially successful as a drama. Still, its narrative is gripping enough to make this film a worthwhile cautionary tale about the potential tyranny inherent in certain strands of science and technology.

Gattaca will likely appeal only to those with sophisticated palates. But those who watch it will have seen some beautiful images and will take away plenty of food for thought to boot.

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