It's rare that my interests as a fan and that of being a professional film critic so neatly overlap as they did when I got to interview writer/director Andrew Niccol upon the release of his underrated SF comedy "S1m0ne" (2002). Two years before I had moderated a panel at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago on "The Best Science Fiction Films of the Decade." After a thorough discussion, three of the four of us named his previous film, "Gattaca" as the best single film of the 1990s. He was touched, if surprised to hear himself listed as an SF filmmaker, in spite of having written "The Truman Show" and written and directed "Gattaca" and "S1M0ne."
"Gattaca" was not a hit when it came out in 1997, got mixed reviews, and quickly vanished. Even the marriage that came out of the film — between stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman — didn't last. Yet this is a film that looks better and more prescient with each passing year, and Exhibit A in any debate over why media SF can't be as full of ideas as written science fiction.
Part of the problem was that at the time it was released, a story about people whose whole lives are determined by their genetic inheritance — with no regard to who or what they actually are — seemed far-fetched to most viewers, if they even understood what it meant. The movie came out several years before the completion of the Human Genome Project, and so the subject matter of the film seemed alien to many filmgoers. More recently, in showing it to college students, there was no such confusion as DNA is now the stuff of prime time television melodramas.
"Gattaca" is the story of Vincent (Hawke), whose tragedy is that he's born the way nearly all of us were...the product of his parents having intercourse. In the near future society he inhabits, this makes him an oddity. Prospective parents now design their babies, eliminating illnesses and defects, but also selecting hair and eye color, body type, and other features. A few even get some extra help, as we discover when we see a pianist with a few extra digits on his hands.
In one of the most quietly chilling scenes in contemporary SF film, the infant Vincent is taken by a nurse, some blood is drawn and tested, and almost instantly his entire life is written for him. He is less than perfect and therefore most options are closed to him. Schools don't want him for fear he might get sick or injured, and his dream of becoming a scientist and space explorer is simply out of the question. He lives on the margins of society and remains largely invisible to them. He is an "invalid" in a society whose "valid" members are those who have been genetically screened before birth.
Niccol's brilliant idea for the film is to take what used to be a story of "passing" as another race (see, e.g., "Pinky") and figure out how Vincent can "pass" as a member of the genetic elite. Such stories were inevitably an exposure of the false values of those elites that make such tactics even necessary, and it strikes close to home for the viewer who realizes that in this society every one of us would be on the outside as well. It doesn't matter how healthy or fit or intelligent you are, if you carry the wrong marker in your genes, the discussion is over.
Vincent hires a shady fixer (Tony Shahloub) who, for a fee, will transform him. He has surgery to lengthen his legs, gets contact lenses to overcome his faulty eyesight, and — key to the whole subterfuge — meets Eugene (Jude Law), a perfect specimen who, unfortunately, is now paralyzed from the hips down. Nature may have won out over nurture in "Gattaca," but real life experience still has a role to play. Vincent, now calling himself Jerome, gets a job at the Gattaca research facility where he will get his chance to go into space. In order for him to pass the numerous physical and medical tests he is required to take on an almost daily basis, Eugene will provide him with the human detritus "Jerome" needs to demonstrate proper DNA: hair, flaked-off skin, urine, blood.
This is where Niccol's world becomes especially rich in invention. This is not merely a society where the state is obsessed with DNA. Everyone is. A romantic couple might demonstrate their feelings by offering up samples, like a strand of hair, that the other can get tested to assess pedigree. Indeed, it needn't be voluntary. At a testing center we see a woman having her mouth swabbed to collect some residue from having kissed her boyfriend. She can check him out without his knowing.
Meanwhile Vincent daily risks exposure as a "de-gene-erate," someone trying to gain status through the use of someone else's DNA. He meticulously keeps his own desk and work station clean not because he's a futuristic Felix Unger, but because he knows that one strand of his own hair can give the whole game away. Vincent has no choice but to buy into the values of the culture that will allow him his dream of space travel. He has to deny who he really is, a terrible indictment of how a member of a minority must suppress himself to fit in.
What of that majority culture? Eugene is a bitter, broken "superman," who should have everything on a platter and instead finds cruel reality has trumped his designer genes. Most of the people who work with "Jerome" have to willfully ignore the evidence that indicates he's not who he says he is: when his ID photo pops up on screen after one test, it is Eugene's picture, not his. Yet no one sees anything but the sparkling example of genetic perfection they believe him to be.
Most interesting is Irene (Uma Thurman), a colleague of "Jerome" who becomes romantically involved with him as well. She has the right genes, but because a genetic marker indicates the possibility she might develop a heart murmur, she is limited in her choices. Unlike Vincent, she accepts the limitations society puts on her and incorporates them into her self-image. It is not until, inevitably, she finds out the truth that she discovers she has been limited not by her genes, but by her attitude.
The plot turns on a murder at the Gattaca facility, so cops are all over the place and Vincent risks discovery at any moment. One of his real hairs is found and since he is there as "Jerome" and there is no record of Vincent — except, ironically, as a janitor who once worked there — he becomes the prime suspect. The only thing he has going for him is that no one really sees him. They see who he is successfully pretending to be. Niccol makes sure we don't get too smug about this by pulling off a few tricks of perception himself. When two detectives arrive to take charge of the case (Alan Arkin, Loren Dean), we automatically assume that the older cop is the senior one, and are pulled up short when it is the younger one giving the orders. We see what we expect to see, Niccol seems to be saying, until we can not avoid the truth any longer.
Indeed, while no one — including Niccol — seems to think the society of "Gattaca" will come to pass in this form, we are already seeing aspects of it in our lives. The ever-expanding testing in schools and workplaces for the "war on drugs" is supposedly for our own good, opening us up to all sorts of further intrusions. Insurance companies and employers who want to exclude (or charge higher premiums) for illnesses you may not have, but carry a genetic marker for, provide yet another sign of what might be called the "Gattaca" culture popping up in the real world.
The ad line for the film in its original release was "There is no gene for the human spirit," and that's what the film is really getting at: we're more than our DNA. The fate of the various characters turns on their choices, not their genes. Vincent's secret becomes known to a few characters, including one unexpected moment at the end of the film — not to be given away here — which reminds us that people are a combination of what they are born with and what they do with it. Vincent can no more transform himself into "Jerome" and eradicate who he really is than society can force Vincent into the discard heap they label "invalids."
In the May/June issue of IROSF my friend and colleague MaryAnn Johanson bemoaned the dearth of serious SF films coming out of Hollywood in recent years. While her point is well taken, I'm not quite as willing as she to write off Hollywood all together. "Gattaca" may prove to be the exception to the rule, but it deserves a place of honor in any pantheon of the great SF films.