In Which Discrimination is Down to a Science
Out of all the sci-fi films covered in this series so far Gattaca stands out. Not for being the best of the bunch (I would still throw that honor to Strange Days and The Matrix), but for its aesthetic and tonal distinction from contemporary trends. Where many films of the time skirted along the “cutting edge” aesthetics of the time (think of the neon, hyper-color, house music, hacker type films of the time) Gattaca remains ardently retroist. It strips down the excesses of the recent sci-fi and streamlines it into a sleek and stylish parable about human identity in a possible future. Yet despite these distinctions from the competition Gattaca remains a staunchly pre-millennial film, not only in its casting, but in its thematics resting on the fears of internal divisiveness breaking up a seemingly settled world. Gattaca is a movie of literalized micro-aggressions, and these ideas paint a tapestry of a world without fear or reprisal from a larger stage.
In a set-up that feels more moral fable than hard sci-fi, Gattaca finds us in a future world where a person’s genes can be edited before they’re born. Each detail picked over and determined before one can even reach the light of day. Into this world Vincent (Ethen Hawke) is born without modification because of his parent’s religiosity. Unfortunately Vincent finds himself discriminated against at every turn, and his parents decide to have a second son modeled to genetic perfection. As Vincent grows up he dreams of becoming an astronaut, a goal out of reach for an unmodified man, he decides to share the identity of a paralyzed Valid (a person with genetic modifications) named Jerome (Jude Law). Just as he is about to achieve his goals, Vincent’s ruse is threatened by a growing romance with Irene (Uma Thurman) and a murder at his workplace where he quickly becomes the prime suspect.
What reads as a standard sci-fi thriller plot plays out more like a mordent and emotional allegory under the direction Andrew Niccol (making his feature directing debut after providing the script for The Truman Show). Niccol refuses to take the premise of the film too literally and instead enjoys a refined and subtle abstracting of the premise. Yes we see the details of how Vincent has to pull off his swapped identity with Jerome: scrubbing his skin, cutting his fingernails, hiding pockets of blood beneath his fingertip, and pulling in pouches of Jerome’s urine for mandatory drug tests. But Niccol never gets hung up on the minutia of his world. This is a smart move because the concept basically crumbles under any logical scrutiny, but remains rich with thematic possibility.
This abstraction is most obvious in the texture and sound of the film. Niccol opts out of the tech thriller/cyberpunk leanings of his compatriots for a look and feel that exists in the past. Gattaca is a retrofuturist fantasy: with mid-century modern architecture, bold single color frames, and elegant and steady camera movements used to highlight the geometric features of each shot. This milieu allows the film to somewhat subvert, “this is all real and will happen to us,” paranoia of the time. Instead it’s a more optimistic take on a Rod Serling styled conceit, with a central hook and gimmick revolving around a thematically grounded plot twist. It’s old fashioned, but not as easily dated. Michael Nyman’s sumptuous string score only accentuates the out of time qualities of the film, inescapably modern but seemingly timeless.
However, these factors don’t actually inhibit Gattaca from being a movie very much of it’s time and cultural moment. Gattaca is a story about the fear of being replaced, usurped by people who seem like you but are innately better, whose skills transcend all your ability and talent. It’s also a story about the indomitable persistence of human character, how our own identity shapes who we are, not who we pretend to be. And you can view these themes as a reaction to the blistering advancements in genetics that were made in the 90s. Dolly the Sheep was born a mere year before the film’s release, and Gattaca fell smack dab into the middle of the Human Genome Project. All of this contextually provides a look at a moment where the world of genetics could quickly become the world of designer babies and endless animal clones.
But as with all fanciful fears and inventions based on the science of the 90s, it turned out to be anxiety for naught, or at least not yet. While the specter of genetic nightmares still linger (what with CRISPR and those biohackers) it has mostly subsumed into the background of worries due to a lack of forward momentum and a bunch of weird mishaps (mostly involving CRISPR and biohackers).
However the question of giving special treatment based, not on merit, but instead some ineffable quantity of “good genes” does raise some eyebrows about Niccol is trying to say. Multiple times throughout the film it is reiterated that discrimination is no longer based on race or gender, but instead how good your genetic makeup is. Put another way, what if attractive, straight, white, men, were no longer guaranteed a spot at the table. What if their innate privilege was handed to somebody else. What kind of anxiety would it cause if somebody like Ethan Hawke couldn’t make it in the world. But then the narrative switches is up, because Ethan Hawke does make it in a world where he is discriminated against, it takes a circuitous route, but Hawke’s instincts are all justified by the final scene in the movie.
So it’s hard not to see Gattaca as weirdly reactionary, but it’s hard to tell what exactly it’s chafing against. Certainly the fears about geneticists playing God, but a worry that meritocracy would vanish (even though a meritocracy never existed), that the playing field would finally be made even if race and gender weren’t considered as discrimination, Niccol doesn’t seem certain. And this is where his beautiful and abstract instincts kind of bite him in the ass, because he can’t really say anything more than, “you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.”
Granted that simple premise is presented in a luxurious wrapper, one bolstered by strong work from the cast. Hawke and Law bring vulnerability to the story, and an emotional core that pays off in a big way during the closing minutes of the film. It wrings a little more hollow the second time through, and maybe it’s because I’ve changed since the last time I saw the film. Despite the timeless aesthetic and aching tone, Gattaca can’t help but seem a little old fashioned.
Odds and Ends
- Honestly I think a majority of my good will was stored inside the movie’s incredible soundtrack. It’s still one of my favorites.
- Niccol has had a career that mostly spiraled downward after the one-two punch of this and Truman Show. But if I can sniff out a good copy of it I would love to write about S1mone, which has one of wildest production histories in recent moviedom.
- I know that The Talented Mr. Ripely is peak Jude Law, but he’s pulling off some major smarmy charm here that is just delicious.
I haven’t decided what the next one should be, hell I’m open to suggestions. What should we cover for Millennial Malaise 17?