(Andrew Niccol, USA, 1997)


This is an American sci-fi film that screams its hopeful arthouse credentials.

Around debuting writer-director Andrew Niccol (who wrote The Truman Show, 1998), it assembles Kieslowski’s cinematographer (Slawomir Idziak), Greenaway’s production designer (Jan Roelfs) and that minimalist composer supreme, Michael Nyman.

The team may be excessively calculated to impress, but one thing is irrefutable: in 1997, the year of Men in Black and Event Horizon, a low-key, futuristic film with serious thematic intentions is a welcome rarity.

Gattaca is not an action-driven or special effects-riddled piece. It looks back to such solemn, mysterious exercises in the SF genre as Alphaville (1965), Solaris (1972) and Blade Runner (1982) – and it does a decent job of honouring this largely lost tradition.

The plot hinges on ambiguities of personal identity in a future where genetic engineering has become the social norm. Vincent (Ethan Hawke), being a mere human with biological flaws, is part of an ‘In-Valid’ underclass.

But Vincent dreams of flying to the stars, alongside those citizens chosen and pre-programmed for the job. So he trains and manipulates his body to trick the system, while changing places with the injured, tormented Jerome (Jude Law).

He also attempts to stir the heart of a frosty co-worker, Irene. The casting of Uma Thurman in this part, with her slightly alien, too-perfect looks, is a brilliant stroke, reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s role in another art sci-fi movie about identity, Peter Wollen‘s Friendship’s Death (1987). (The film also boasts some amusing and nutty cameos from the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Gore Vidal.)

Vincent’s subterfuge becomes even more stressful when cops start combing the workplace in search of a murderer. The film becomes something of a mystery-thriller at this point – but, as with the action element, the suspense and intrigue components are kept attenuated, even discreet.

There are few surprises here; the fable of individual, human frailty pitted against a totalitarian system is familiar from such movies as George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971) and its many literary precedents.

But Gattaca is compelling and taut in its own quiet way, and its aesthetic meshing of colour filters, wide-open design and hypnotic musical riffs is very pleasing.

MORE Niccol: Lord of War

© Adrian Martin November 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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