Back in 1997, there was buzz about a new sci-fi film called “Gattaca” which caught my eye; it was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who would later be credited with writing 1998’s “The Truman Show” as well as directing “SimOne” (2002) and other innovative, underrated movies (2005’s “Lords of War” is another). Danny De Vito was also credited as producer, too. All I knew at that time was that it was set in a future of rampant genetic engineering and that it starred Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The previews looked very intriguing, and I wanted to see it, but this borderline arthouse movie wasn’t playing in my area, and when it finally did, it seemed that free time eluded me at every turn.
In the summer of 1998 I was dating the woman who would later became my wife, and I expressed to her my desire to see the film. Luckily by then, “Gattaca” was only a rental away at my favorite video store, so I rented the VHS and we had a movie date at my apartment. Well, needless to say, the film greatly exceeded my expectations. I became obsessed with this movie; taping it off of cable and later buying it on laserdisc (in the waning days of that unwieldy format). Eventually I would own it on DVD, and it remains in my collection today. It spoke to many things that are still relevant; racial discrimination (despite its conspicuously all-white cast), the burden of expectations, imposter syndrome, and most of all, the triumph of the human spirit over the sum of our genetic bits.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that “Gattaca” soon became one of my favorite movies of the 1990s, which were already a very fertile decade for film, with such classics as “Pulp Fiction,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jackie Brown,” “Nightmare Before Christmas” and many others. The 1990s were my jam when it came to movies; a decade as innovative and experimental as the 1970s or even the 1960s. So it was with a bit of surprise when I realized I’d not yet examined “Gattaca” for this site.
*****GENETIC PREDISPOSITION FOR SPOILERS!!*****
The film opens with a fascinating credits montage of abstract shapes crashing onto a smooth surface. These shapes are revealed to be shaven hair follicles and nail clippings; our human waste matter than can reveal our entire genome to the unscrupulous and unwelcome investigator (screw you, 23andMe). The letters GATC are also highlighted in the credits (letters that represent nucleic acid sequences within DNA), in keeping with the film’s title. “Jerome Morrow” (Ethan Hawke) narrates to give us a senes of the movie’s otherwise nondescript future, where genetic engineering has become the societal norm for human reproduction, with natural born children (“faith-births” “godchildren”) becoming a new underclass of obsolete, inferior genetics, commonly referred to as “in-valids”. The human race, he notes wryly, now has discrimination down to a science. Jerome Morrow also boasts of his ascendency to become an astro-navigator at the Gattaca aerospace corporation. Morrow is a genetically-engineered member of society who is bred to do just about anything he wishes. Nothing is beyond Jerome’s reach, says the narrator, who then tells us that he is not Jerome Morrow…
Noting that he was conceived “in the Riviera” (the car, not the French locale), Vincent Freeman (the man behind the Jerome facade) relates the story of his broken childhood, which follows him from conception to late teens. Right after Vincent’s birth, a nurse coldly reads the results of his DNA sequence (taken from a single drop of blood), which tells Vincent’s parents Antonio (Elias Koteas) and Marie (Jayne Brook) the life story of their newborn. Their newborn baby boy will be a troubled, underdeveloped, manic depressive with heart issues, who will most likely not live beyond 30 years old. Antonio is so disappointed that he refuses to give the boy his name, choosing the name of “Vincent” instead. Marie and Vincent conceive their second child, Anton, in what has become the new normal; through the talents of their local geneticist (played by Blair Underwood, in one of the conspicuously rare non-white roles in the film). This second child, Anton, will be their uber-child; born with all the advantages, and none of the baggage. Anton is taller, more athletic, with better eyesight and a lot more of his parents’ attention and affection.
Note: The flashbacks of Vincent’s childhood are filmed with a sepia-golden hue, evoking the look of the flashbacks seen in “Godfather 2” and many other films. Slawomir Idziak’s clean-lined, spartan cinematography is very elegant, as are the many California locations used in the film, including the futuristic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center (“Gattaca” itself), which was also used in George Lucas’ “THX-1138” (1971) and more recently in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014).
Living near the beach, the boys have a ritualistic swimming game of chicken, where each dares the other to swim out as far as they can; first one to turn back loses. Vincent, born without Anton’s innate prowess always loses…until one day when the two teens have a rematch. Vincent somehow out swims his genetically ‘superior’ younger brother, who nearly drowns. The shamed Anton has to be rescued by his older ‘inferior’ sibling. This is, as narrator Vincent tells us, the day that made everything else possible. Tearing his photo from a family photo, the rebellious Vincent leaves his unloving home and sets out to make his way in the world, dreaming of a job in space…
Unable to land anything beyond janitorial work, the bespectacled adult Vincent lands a job cleaning up at the Gattaca aerospace corporation, where he polishes doors and waxes floors for the genetically elite engineers and astronauts within. While his gruff cleaning crew supervisor Caesar (Ernest Borgnine) warns Vincent not to “get any ideas,” Vincent still daydreams of working in space. Exercising vigorously while memorizing texts and atlases of spaceflight and celestial mechanics, Vincent soon makes contact with an illegal genetics broker named German (future “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub) who offers Vincent a “borrowed ladder”; a downtrodden member of the genetically elite who offers their genetic identify for the right price… a willing partner in their own identity theft.
Vincent will have to assume the identity of former Olympic silver-medalist swimmer Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law, in a breakout performance), an embittered, suicidal Brit who is paralyzed after (deliberately) walking into traffic. We then see Vincent slowly transforming into his new housemate Jerome, by changing clothes, hairstyle, contact lenses (to alter both eyesight and color) and other superficialities; even to the point of wearing false fingertips which double as blood sachets for the frequent employee blood testing done at the Gattaca corporation. Jerome tells Vincent that he should start getting used to going by the name ‘Jerome’ now, and to start referring to him by his middle name “Eugene” instead.
Note: The names of the two men, Vincent Freeman and Jerome Eugene Morrow are significant as well. “Vincent”, meaning to conquer, and “Free-man” being self-explanatory, as Vincent yearns to be free of his unjust societal shackles. Jerome (“sacred”) has the middle name of Eugene, part of the word “eugenics,” the practice of selective breeding for maximum genetic advantage. “Morrow” also means “the future”, as Jerome represents the customizable future of the human race.The ‘free man’ also becoming the man of tomorrow. Writer/director Niccol chose his character names very carefully.
The final challenge is the single greatest test of Vincent/Jerome’s commitment to his new identity; he needs to be taller in order to pass for the 6 ft. tall Eugene (who bitterly notes that his wheelchair-bound height is only “four foot six”). Surgically lengthening his legs at the calves, Vincent now has to recover and learn to walk again, much like a newborn; fitting, as his reborn self prepares to apply for a job as an astro-navigator at the prestigious Gattaca corporation… the very place he’d been cleaning as a bespectacled, disheveled janitor only months before.
Reporting to Gattaca’s clinic, Vincent/Jerome (using his clever fingertip sachets) has his blood taken by Gattaca medic Lamar (Xander Berkeley). Lamar congratulates Vincent/Jerome on acceptance into Gattaca. A dumbfounded Vincent/Jerome asks, “What about the interview?” Lamar answers, “That was it.” Containing his enthusiasm, Vincent/Jerome returns home to tell Eugene that he, or rather they, were accepted.
The two men decide to go out for a celebratory drink at their favorite nightclub to celebrate their con. We learn that Vincent/Jerome’s new assignment will be as navigator for a forthcoming manned mission to Saturn’s moon of Titan, which has an atmosphere denser than that of Earth and is rich in methane and complex organic molecules. Vincent/Jerome then expresses worry for how Eugene will fare without him, but a drunken Eugene assures him that he doesn’t need to explore the world (or worlds); he lives inside of his mind, which is enough. The two men return home, with a nearly unconscious Eugene admitting to Vincent/Jerome that his ‘traffic accident’ was, in fact, a suicide attempt stemming from his bitterness at placing second in an Olympics swimming competition (the burden of perfection is just as damning as Vincent’s own imposter syndrome). Vincent/Jerome dismisses the drunken confession and places his paralyzed housemate into his bed.
Note: The fraternal bond between Vincent and Eugene soon develops into the sort of relationship that younger Vincent never had with his own younger sibling; a feeling of trust and mutual dependence. It’s also interesting how both men’s lives were defined by swimming; Vincent bested his genetically superior brother Anton, thus seeding Vincent’s future ambitions, while the genetically blessed Eugene didn’t get the gold medal at the Olympics, leading him to attempt suicide for his perceived ‘failure.’
Back at Gattaca, a mission director who was secretly suspicious of new employee Vincent/Jerome’s identity, is conveniently murdered; his skull gruesomely smashed in by a clunky computer keyboard in a savage, ugly, unseen attack. Two detectives (“Hoovers”) arrive at the scene; a young, genetically-enhanced lead detective (Loren Dean) and his older, cynical, ‘faith-birth’ partner Hugo (Alan Arkin). We see an instant clash of styles between the two men, with the yuppie detective preferring clinical deduction over the more intuitive, older Hugo’s ‘hunches,’ but the older Hugo follows his younger partner’s lead. The two detectives are met by Gattaca’s lead director Josef (playwright Gore Vidal), who offers his full cooperation in the investigation, despite its disruption to daily operations within the sprawling complex.
To better facilitate said cooperation with the investigation, Josef chooses Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman) as the company’s liaison, answering all of the investigators’ questions and giving them necessary access. Irene also catches the eye of Vincent/Jerome, who is instantly attracted to the tall, cool blonde. As the investigation gains traction, we learn that the slain mission director opposed the company’s upcoming manned flight to Titan, and that he was universally despised by all. This leaves many suspects, and just muddies the waters of the investigation enough to allow Vincent/Jerome some breathing room.
Note: Once again, Andrew Niccol’s knack for clever names is on display; Irene “Cassini” is named after 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini, who first charted the planet Saturn’s elegant rings; one of the great beauties of the solar system. The joint US/EU Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn was, in fact, launched in October of 1997 (the year of Gattaca’s release) and arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004. Cassini’s detachable Huygens probe (named after Titan’s discoverer, 17th century Dutch astronomer Chistiaan Huygens) became the first spacecraft to land on Titan, the goal of Gattaca’s fictional manned mission.
With his pending mission giving Vincent/Jerome a ticking clock, he nervously asks Irene out on a date, while trying to maintain the pretense of the cool, aloof ‘made man.’ She seems reluctant to accept the date, not because of him, but because of her own feelings of inadequacy; she tells Vincent/Jerome that, despite her genetic engineering, she was born with a heart defect which prevents her from traveling in space. She offers him a strand of her hair for genetic sequencing, if he’s still interested. Vincent/Jerome deliberately lets go of the strand, casually (and smoothly) stating, “Sorry, but the wind must’ve caught it.” In other words, genetics be damned. She smiles and accepts.
On their first date, they attend a piano recital by a 12-fingered pianist (“That piece can only be played by 12”, Irene casually notes). During a random police traffic checkpoint, necessitated by the murder at Gattaca, Vincent/Jerome is forced to discreetly remove his contact lenses for a cop’s examination of his eyes. When the cop offers to swab his cheek to sequence his saliva DNA, Vincent/Jerome casually jokes that he might yield a “hot sample” (implying he’s been kissing Irene). She is startled by Vincent/Jerome’s bold lie, but quietly covers for her date. Vincent/Jerome casually offers up his false fingertip sachet instead, easily faking the blood test. He passes, and they are fee to go. Vincent/Jerome thanks Irene for covering for him, feigning a phobia of unsanitary cotton swabs. Irene takes him to “see something” with her. Without his contacts, the severely myopic Vincent/Jerome is virtually blind, and is nearly killed jaywalking to their destination. Once there, Irene shows him the dawning sun over a field of solar panels (the real-life Ivanpah Solar Power Array, outside of Las Vegas). Vincent/Jerome, seeing only a golden blur, pretends to see the sun’s rays seeping onto the metallic panels like so much liquid light. In full daylight, Irene notes that Vincent/Jerome’s eyes “look different.” He dismisses it as a trick of light…
With the police dragnet drawing ever wider, and after narrowly feigning his way past another blood test with Lamar, Vincent/Jerome foolishly decides to go on another date with Irene. At Vincent/Jerome’s favorite club, Irene voices some of her concerns to Vincent/Jerome; wondering aloud if he’s only trying to get close to her because of her ties to the investigation. Vincent/Jerome dismisses her worries with yet another smooth rejoinder. Before long, the evening is broken up by Det. Hugo, who kills the music and asks the club patrons not to leave…causing all of them to flurry and flee (apparently even the genetically elite have secrets to hide from the police… perhaps more so). Irene and Vincent/Jerome flee with the rest, but are stopped outside a back exit by a waiting cop. Thinking on desperate feet, Vincent/Jerome covers his fist with his jacket sleeve (not to leave any incriminating blood) and brutally punches the cop unconscious! Irene is mortified, screaming hysterically at Vincent/Jerome, as he grabs her arm and flees, running into a secluded corner of a back alley. More cops arrive on the scene, as does Hugo’s unnamed superior officer, who seems to know exactly who he’s looking for. Looking into the dark alley, the detective cries “Vincent!” repeatedly, using “Jerome’s” real name. Irene, both terrified and confused, looks into her date’s eyes and asks tearfully, “Who’s Vincent?” Still not able to come clean, a trembling Vincent simply kisses her as the two stealthily retreat back to her beach house…
After a night of lovemaking, where things remain both said and unsaid, Vincent/Jerome awakens early, going to the shore where he meticulously and painfully scrubs himself clean with a rock, trying to rid his body of any unwanted “invalid” matter inadvertently shed into Irene’s domain. As Vincent/Jerome dresses to leave, Irene notices the scar on his legs, which he, tells her is the “exact height” of an errant Chrysler’s bumper that nearly killed him (borrowing a page from Eugene’s book). Irene confronts him on his glib deception, which he doesn’t deny. She also tells him she knows he’s involved in the mission director’s murder. Being completely honest for once, Vincent/Jerome replies, “That’s not true, Irene.”
Back on Gattaca, the screws are tightening as Det. Hugo, angered by their suspect’s escape, insists on testing each of Gattaca’s employees yet again, insisting on blood drawn directly from the vein, which nullifies Vincent/Jerome’s blood sachets. Irene, aware of this change of plan, catches Vincent/Jerome just before he is about to step through the security screening, coldly advising him that he ‘doesn’t look well’ and that he needs to “go home.” Taking her cue, Vincent/Jerome reverses course and heads back toward the lobby entrance. Irene tells the yuppie lead detective that Jerome went home with an acute case of common “preflight nausea.” Not buying her transparent lie, the detective suggests that he and Irene pay Jerome a house call. Catching the tail end of the conversation before he exited the building, Vincent/Jerome uses his watch-phone to call Eugene, telling him “I need you to be you today,” warning his housemate that the cops are coming over to sample his blood. With only minutes before the cops arrive, the paralyzed Eugene leaps from his wheelchair and pulls himself up a flight of spiraled stairs towards his housemate’s upper living level, where the cop and Irene will meet him. Struggling to answer the door chime, Eugene pulls himself up into a chair, dabs the sweat from his forehead, and straightens his disheveled clothing to appear as “normal” as possible.
Irene and the detective let themselves in, finding a ‘relaxed’ Eugene sitting in his chair. Aware that the detective knows about Irene’s relationship with Vincent/Jerome, Eugene asks Irene, “Where’s my kiss?” She goes along with it, not sure exactly who or whom she is protecting anymore. The detective draws Eugene’s blood (not sure how a cop was authorized to draw blood, but okay…), confirming that he is, in fact, Jerome Eugene Morrow. At that exact moment, the detective gets a call on his watch; his team at Gattaca have found their man! Still suspicious of Eugene, the detective heads back to Gattaca. After his departure, Irene looks at Eugene in shock and confusion just as Vincent/Jerome walks in. Vincent asks Eugene, “How are you, Jerome?” To which a resigned Eugene replies, “Not bad, Jerome.” Wandering how the paralyzed Eugene scaled a spiral staircase, Eugene gloomily offers, “I could always walk. I was just faking it.” Irene has had enough and bolts for the exit. Jerome catches up to her and apologizes, finally giving her his full confession; he is an ‘invalid’ named Vincent Freeman, who is using Eugene’s DNA samples as his ‘borrowed ladder’ to gain access into Gattaca. But there is one thing that he and Irene have in common; they each have acute heart conditions, and his own heart is many beats past its expiration date. Irene can’t imagine how any of it is possible. Vincent counters by telling her that she, and the rest of the genetically engineered, are so fixated on limitations that they ignore aspiration… to wish for something so badly that you exceed your own limitations in order to achieve it.
Back at Gattaca, the lead detective walks in on Hugo and the newfound suspect; Director Josef! While the lead detective was fixated on the true identity of Vincent/Jerome, a forensics team examined a blob of saliva found in the dead mission controller’s eye…and it belonged to Josef, who hated his colleague beyond belief, and murdered him in a blind rage. Josef’s own DNA profile suggested that such a primitive and brutal act was beyond his genetic makeup, but the recurring theme throughout “Gattaca” is that humans are far more than the sum of their DNA, and that there are no genes for desire and motive.
Once assured that the Titan mission can no longer be postponed, Josef offered his full confession to the investigators. Instead of being relieved at the closure of his case, the lead detective seems vaguely disappointed. Det. Hugo quietly notes his superior’s unusual reaction, and passively-aggressively adds, “I imagine you’ll be celebrating tonight, sir.” His boss merely nods distractedly and leaves.
Note: The late writer/intellectual Gore Vidal plays the entire ‘confession’ scene silent, sitting quietly with a wonderfully creepy smile on his face, as Alan Arkin fills in the blanks for both his superior officer and the audience. It wasn’t any accidental DNA that gave Director Josef away; it was his deliberate act of spitting in the dead man’s eye that was the telltale sign.
Both Vincent and the lead detective realize they still have unfinished business with each other. Vincent goes back to Gattaca, where he finds the lead detective at his work station. The ‘unnamed lead detective’ is, in fact, Vincent’s younger brother Anton Freeman. An astonished Anton tells his older brother that he has committed fraud and is in a lot of trouble unless he allows Anton to help him out of it.
Note: As a fan of mysteries, I kicked myself for NOT figuring this out ahead of time. The big Anton-reveal (the movie’s “I am your father” moment) is so obviously foreshadowed throughout the movie. The ‘lead detective’ is never named aloud before the big reveal. Detective Freeman superficially resembles both Vincent and the younger actors playing early-Anton. Detective Freeman is even seen practicing swimming strokes in a mini-pool during his off-hours. Anton even fits the stereotypical ‘bully’ profile by entering a career in law enforcement (that’s not a slur on cops…just the stereotypes of cops). To be honest, I’m actually glad I didn’t put those pieces together the first time I saw the film, because I really enjoyed feeling my slackened jaw hit the floor.
Refusing any assistance from his arrogant younger sibling, Vincent flies into a rage as he screams at Anton, “God, even YOU are going to tell me what I can and can’t do now? In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t need any rescuing…but you did once.” This jab at Anton refers to that time when the teenaged Anton nearly drowned trying to out-swim a seemingly superhuman Vincent. Anton is still smarting over that incident, and even today, he is still seen practicing swimming strokes in his private time. Twisting the knife, Vincent goads his insecure kid brother into a rematch…
Back at the same beach from their childhood, we see the adult Vincent and Anton stripping down for a late night swim; whoever turns back first, loses. Once again, they swim in the waters well past the immediate horizon. Anton arrogantly takes Vincent’s challenge and tries to outdistance him. It doesn’t work, and Anton is soon overcome with exhaustion. In despair, he begs the answer of his older “inferior” brother, “How are you doing this? How are you doing any of it?” Vincent tells Anton that he succeeded by not saving enough for the return trip… by pouring 100% of his power into simply out-distancing Anton. As the defeated Anton slips beneath the water, Vincent dives deep into the dark waters and, once again, rescues his arrogant kid brother from drowning to death in the cold Pacific…
Outside of Vincent’s home, we see Irene asleep at the wheel of her convertible. As she stirs, she sees an exhausted Vincent slumped by the side of her car, waiting for her to awaken. With no more lies between them, he plucks a hair from his uncombed hair and offers it to her to be sequenced. She deliberately lets it go, repeating Vincent’s earlier line, “Sorry…the wind must’ve caught it.”
The morning of his flight to Titan, Jerome is near the entry corridors to board the spacecraft, when he notices Gattaca’s medic Lamar standing taking last-minute urine samples before boarding. Thinking he was through with substance tests, Jerome didn’t think to hide one of Eugene’s plastic urine bladders under his pant-leg. Realizing he can’t fake his way out of this final test, Jerome tells Lamar to “just remember that I was as good as any, and better than most. I could’ve been up and back, and no one would’ve been the wiser.” But Lamar seems distracted, as he begins talking about his genetically-engineered son, who wasn’t exactly “everything that was promised”…
Lamar’s boy is a big fan of astronaut Vincent, and despite some birth defects, he wants to follow in Vincent’s footsteps. While the two seem to be talking over each other, they aren’t; in fact, they’re on the exact same page. Lamar processes the urine sample, which reads as ‘invalid’ Vincent Freeman. Instead of calling for security, Lamar calmly changes the readout to match that of Jerome Morrow. The two men share a look, as Lamar quietly presses, “You’re gonna miss your flight, Vincent.”
Note: Once again, this twist in the movie was foreshadowed earlier. During each of Vincent’s trips to Lamar’s lab for substance tests in prior scenes, the wry Lamar would begin to say, “Have I ever told you about my son?” without continuing the story. That Lamar’s son wasn’t born exactly as hoped makes Lamar sympathetic to Vincent’s dilemma. Lamar doesn’t place his faith in genetic engineering alone. He prefers to believe that his son, and by default Vincent, can do whatever they choose to do.
As Vincent blasts off for Titan with his genetically engineered crew, he opens a card left for him by Eugene; the card contains a lock of Eugene’s hair. Eugene has left Vincent enough of his urine, hair and blood samples to last a lifetime, all safely tucked away in their refrigerator. The reason for the stockpiling soon becomes clear as the still-suicidal Eugene pulls himself from his wheelchair into their home’s blast furnace (used for disposal of incriminating ‘in-valid’ body matter) and cremates himself, still wearing his second place silver medal. The genetically-‘superior’ Eugene lived and died by his own limitations, whereas the ‘faith-born’ Vincent reached for the stars by choosing to ignore his own.
Vincent’s final narration: “For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… maybe I’m going home.”
Film Noir meets The Twilight Zone.
It’s hard to tell which was the more obvious inspirational choice for director Andrew Niccol…1940s film-noir, or 1960s “The Twilight Zone.” “Gattaca” envisions a future (realized by production designer Jan Roelfs) where men are back to wearing fedoras, trench coats and three-piece suits for every occasion, including flying rockets to Saturn’s moons. The cars have a 1940s-1960s clunkiness, yet hum with clean-sounding electric engines and green headlights. Lots of thick, cathode ray-tubed computers everywhere as well. Furniture is all polished metallics and hard woods. Nothing looks cozy, warm or even messy. This is a very cool, buttoned-up and impersonal future.
One of the final shots sees a group of suit-and-tie wearing astronauts standing within the rocket-ship’s interior, which is presented as a gray-walled cylindrical room with a disco ball casting reflections everywhere. Nonsensical perhaps, but it somehow fits within the film’s austere stylings; lots of sharp lines, overdressed people, and buildings filled with Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture. A realistic-looking rocket-ship interior wold’ve broken the spell, somehow.
The production design, right down to the fedoras and clunky, older-looking cars, was copied almost exactly for the failed “Battlestar Galactica” spinoff, “Caprica” (2010), which also represented a space-age culture that was both retro-chic and ambiguously futuristic.
“That piece can only be played with 12 fingers.”
Composer Michael Nyman (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) creates a soundtrack that is more in synch with Vincent Freeman’s soul than the austere world that surrounds him. The music is elegant and full of longing, especially during the end titles. With stirring, earnest strings sounding like something composed by a latter-day Vivaldi. Track 14 on the soundtrack (which I own) is called “It Must Be The Light” and is the music we hear as dawn breaks over the solar panels (of the real-life Ivanpah solar-power array in Nevada). It’s a slower-tempo version of the end title theme, and is rich with dreamlike beauty, but with an undercurrent of strength (the subtly heroic horns that later break the melodic strings). Other parts of the soundtrack are less optimistic, reflecting the more sinister times when Vincent is forced to evade the authorities. They give just the right feel of paranoia, without being too over-the-top.
The 12-fingered piano piece played at the recital (during Irene and Vincent’s date) is a digitally-augmented version of Schubert’s Impromptu in G-Flat Major, with additional bits added to make the piece sound as if it requires 12 fingers to play it.
“You two look so right together I wanna double my fee!”
The casting for the film (credited to Francine Maisler) was equally fitting. The young actors playing various stages of Vincent all bear strong resemblances to Ethan Hawke (especially the toddler version and later teen versions). Ethan Hawke and Loren Dean look very right together as well, which makes my earlier failure to connect Dean as the adult Anton all the more forehead-slappingly obvious. Uma Thurman, whose cool Scandinavian looks and authoritative height make her seem like a classic femme fatale; a latter-day Greta Garbo, to whom director Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”) once compared her. She and Hawke have such great chemistry together it’s not difficult to imagine the two actors genuinely falling in love. The two were married in 1998 and divorced seven years later. Their daughter Maya Hawke is an actress as well, appearing in “Stranger Things” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
While actor Jude Law’s more rounded face doesn’t quite match his airbrushed triangular-faced portrait in the film, it was arguably necessary to have a portrait of Law that could ‘pass’ for Ethan Hawke in a pinch. As the genetics broker German (Tony Shalhoub) says, “When’s the last time anyone looked at a photo? You could have my face on your name-tag, for chrissakes.” He’s not entirely wrong.
The movie also wisely employs a couple of powerhouse veterans in short but key supporting roles. First, we see the late Ernest Borgnine playing Caesar, a janitorial staff crew chief whom Hawke’s Vincent works with in cleaning up Gattaca, only to have his former chief utterly fail to recognize him later on in a sharp suit without his glasses. In his relatively brief screen time, Borgnine Caesar from a gruff, Archie Bunker-like boss to a meek subordinate, humbly offering to dispose of his former employee’s paper cup for him. There was a deleted scene where Vincent, about to leave for Titan, leaves his old telescope with his curmudgeonly ex-supervisor.
Alan Arkin also gives the film an able assist as the cynical detective Hugo. One gets the feeling that Hugo was old enough to remember the world before genetic engineering ran rampant. Given his age and lower ranking to Detective Freeman, it’s safe to assume he’s not genetically engineered, and therefore wasn’t born into the same world of privilege as his superior. His passive-aggressive demeanor towards his boss just oozes with resentment (“Well that’s a damn shame, sir”), but is always talked back with something humble (“I hope I’m not out of line”). Arkin walked that tightrope between obedience and insubordination like a skilled acrobat.
If I have any issue with the casting of “Gattaca”, it’s the lack of color in the lead or even supporting roles. With the exception of black actor Blair Underwood as the Freeman family’s geneticist, we don’t see any other major characters of color in “Gattaca”, but that seems to have been by design. Perhaps by employing monochromatic casting, the film was trying to tell its story about classism and discrimination without being too blatant or obvious. Yes, we do see many people of color in the film; most of them seen fleetingly as genetically-superior “Gattaca” employees, but none of them are anything more than extras.
More than the sum of its DNA.
“Gattaca” is an intensely clever sci-fi noir that, in the best tradition of science fiction, offers a warning about trying too hard in “straightening that which God hath made crooked” (I’m not a person of faith, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same). “Gattaca” is not anti-science; it merely tells us that not everything about ourselves can be gleaned from a complex list of instructions within our DNA. There are no genes for chance or fate, or even circumstance.
We are unique beings possessed of abilities from both nature and nurture, and if we choose to live within a world of predefined limits, we can never be greater than the sum of our parts. It’s that breathing room outside of our genome that ultimately tells us the most about ourselves.
“Gattaca” is available for rental streaming on both YouTube and Amazon Prime for $3.99 (US) and can also be purchased on Blu-Ray/DVD via contact-free shipping on Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 164,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Vincent Freeman’s fastidiousness with personal hygiene suddenly makes a lot of sense in this age. Take care and be safe!