What is genetic engineering, after all, but preemptive plastic surgery? Make the child perfect in the test tube, and save money later. Throw in perfect health, a high IQ and a long life-span, and you have the brave new world of “Gattaca,” in which the bioformed have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get to be menial laborers.
This is one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas. Its hero is a man who challenges the system. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy of about 30 years. He is an “In-Valid,” and works as a cleaner in a space center.
Vincent does not accept his fate. He never has. As a child, he had swimming contests with his brother Anton (Loren Dean), who has all the right scores but needs to be saved from drowning. Now Vincent dreams of becoming a crew member on an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn. Using an illegal DNA broker, he makes a deal with a man named Jerome (Jude Law), who has the right genes but was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome will provide him with blood, urine samples and an identity. In a sense, they'll both go into space. “Gattaca” is the remarkable debut of a writer-director from New Zealand, Andrew Niccol, whose film is intelligent and thrilling--a tricky combination--and also visually exciting. His most important set is a vast office where genetically superior computer programmers come to work every day, filing into their long rows of desks like the office slaves in King Vidor's “The Crowd” and Orson Welles' “The Trial.” (Why are “perfect” human societies so often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides in our flaws?) Vincent, as “Jerome,” gets a job as a programmer, supplies false genetic samples and becomes a finalist for the space shot.
The tension comes in two ways. First, there's the danger that Vincent will be detected; the area is swept daily, and even an eyelash can betray him. Second, there's a murder; a director of the center, who questions the wisdom of the upcoming shot, is found dead, and a detective (Alan Arkin) starts combing the personnel for suspects. Will a computer search sooner or later put together Vincent, the former janitor, with “Jerome,” the new programmer? Vincent becomes friendly with Irene (Uma Thurman), who works in the center but has been passed over for a space shot because of low scores in some areas. They are attracted to one another, but romance in this world can be dangerous; after kissing a man, a woman is likely to have his saliva swabbed from her mouth so she can test his prospects. Other supporting characters include Gore Vidal, as a mission supervisor, and Tony Shalhoub as the broker (“You could go anywhere with this guy's helix under your arm”).
Hawke is a good choice for the lead, combining the restless dreams of a “Godchild” with the plausible exterior of a lab baby. The best scenes involve his relationship with the real Jerome, played by Law as smart, bitter, and delighted to be sticking it to the system that has grounded him. (He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but after all, as the movie observes, you don't need to walk in space.) His drama parallels Vincent's, because if either one is caught they'll both go down together.
Science fiction in the movies has recently specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish, the science in “Gattaca” is theoretically possible. When parents can order “perfect” babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars? That's how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children.
Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun? Will parents order children who are rebellious, ungainly, eccentric, creative, or a lot smarter than their parents are? There's a concert pianist in “Gattaca” who has 12 fingers. Don't you sometimes have the feeling you were born just in time?
Set in the 'not too distant' future, social class in Gattaca is defined by genetic formation. Eugenics, the process of conceiving children through genetic manipulation, is the most common avenue of giving birth. Although discrimination is illegal, the analysis of D.N.A is common and those who are naturally born are considered 'invalids' and are relegated to menial jobs. Vincent Freeman is one of the last babies to be conceived naturally. When he is born, doctors inform his parents of his numerous genetic shortcomings and he is given an estimated lifespan of 30.2 years. Vincent is then treated as being 'critically ill' and his parents ardently believe that any minor incident has the ability to take his life. Vincent's younger brother, Anton, is conceived by genetic selection and is Vincent's genetic superior. Anton is considered to be worthy of his father's name because he does not have any genetic shortcomings. Vincent dreams of a career in space but is prevented from getting into the training program due to his status as an "invalid."
The two brothers often play a self-invented game called "chicken." This game can also be seen as defining the relationship between the two brothers, where the one who was deemed superior drowned and was saved by his genetic inferior. Both of the brothers swim out into the sea and the one to turn around and swim back is deemed the loser. One day, Vincent finally wins a game of chicken and saves Anton when he starts to drown. Vincent runs away from home.
Vincent works a menial cleaning job at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and conceives a plan to gain employment at Gattaca by using DNA samples from an Agent. The agent takes Vincent to Jerome Eugene Morrow, who is a former star athlete that became paralyzed due to his suicide attempt after coming second in the swimming world championships. The contract between them is simple: Marrow will give him his elite genetic status in society while Vincent will maintain Marrow's luxury lifestyle. To avoid detection, Vincent must meticulously groom and clean himself every day to avoid leaving traces of his own genetic material and must carry samples of Jerome's DNA to pass genetic screenings. Vincent excels in Gattaca as soon as he has Jerome's genetics. He is only asked for his urine sample, which is proof of his genetic superiority, at his job interview and is given a lucrative position at Gattaca.
Vincent meets Anton again after the authorities are called in to investigate a murder in Gattaca one week before Vincent's space launch to Titan. Vincent is entrenched in controversy as he is considered the top suspect. The brothers meet during the investigation, and Anton challenges him to a game of chicken. Once again, Vincent wins and takes both of the brothers back to safety using celestial navigation.
During this time Vincent becomes close to his work colleague, Irene Cassini, due to the investigation. Even though she is one of the most talented people in Gattaca, she is unable to go on the Titan mission due to her defective heart. Vincent encourages Irene to overcome her genetically faulty heart and find her self-confidence. This enables the two to fall in love. Jerome gives Vincent a note to keep on the morning of his launch and tells him to read it after takeoff after revealing he has created enough D.N.A samples to last Vincent two lifetimes.
But one final genetic test awaits Vincent before his launch. He is stunned to discover that Dr. Lamar, the doctor in charge of conducting background checks has been aware of his true status. Lamar allows Vincent to keep his genetic validity because of his son, deemed genetically perfect but not so in reality. When Vincent opens Jerome's note, he finds a lock of his hair. Meanwhile, Jerome dons his silver medal and incinerates himself in his luxury home's incinerator.