An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Gattaca (1997)
- Credit: Archant
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Gattaca; dir: Andrew Niccol; starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley, Jayne Brook, Elias Koteas. Cert: 15 (1997)
In modern cinema science fiction is often just another way of saying science fantasy. It’s a fantastical journey to a galaxy far, far away where the need to keep the plot moving is aided by the fact that characters can be instantaneously beamed from place to place without all that tiresome messing about in hyper-space.
Green-blooded aliens are frequently presented as the bad guys – often a parable for our own darker character traits – a battle ensues, lots of adrenalin pumping laser-filled gun-fire is exchanged before the heroes in the white suits beat the villains in the black suits and order is restored before the final credit crawl.
Now, I love the twist-turn acrobatics of a good space opera as much as anyone, but, there should be more to science fiction than science fantasy. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report have shown that you can use science fiction as a means to have a serious discussion about the way that our planet/society is heading.
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Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca is all about the ethics behind the science of genetic engineering. He asks the tough question: just because you can do something, does it mean that you should – even though, on the surface, it would seem to be a good thing to do?
Gattaca presents no easy answers but it asks us to look at the bigger picture. Andrew Niccol introduces us to a chilling world which is not too different from our own. It is a place run by multi-national corporations, where jobs are scarce and you need to be better than the person next door to get on.
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So, the big question the film asks us is: “If you could prevent your unborn child from ever getting cancer, would you do so?” Of course, but what about eliminate the possibility of alcoholism? Addiction in general? What about shaping learning potential or increasing your child’s IQ by 40 points?
In the world presented by Gattaca, genetic engineering is standard practise. Officially sanctioned births are screened, genetically modified, planned, all defects removed. They have the best genes and the best prospects for a healthy, long-life serving the best interests of society.
But, not everything in the garden is rosy. Some children don’t have the perfect start in life. Some births are unsanctioned, deemed to be love children, and filled with unfiltered, random genes which may turn out to be defective. These are known as In-Valids.
Gattaca is told through the eyes of one such In-Valid, Vincent, played with wonderful restraint by Ethan Hawke. Like all love children he is the lowest of the low in society. Even though he has the mental capacity to excel, his position, his caste, means that he can only work as a cleaner or some other menial job.
He wants more. His ambition is to work at Gattaca, the high-flying hub of the space programme, and be accepted as a potential flight commander. In order to realise his dream he takes the identity of someone with the right gene profile – Jerome, played with bitter wariness by Jude Law. He feels betrayed and abandoned after a sporting accident leaves him paralysed.
This is science fiction but this is also a thriller and a caper movie. Together Jerome and Vincent are trying to infiltrate a high security organisation and pull of the biggest fraud in the history of mankind – a fraud which will expose the duplicity behind a seemingly benign genetics programme.
Inside Gattaca Vincent gets drawn to the cool Irene, played with just the right amount of icy detachment by Uma Thurman, she appears to be the perfect young woman, who performs her tasks like an automaton, and yet underneath, privately, secretly, she hides all manner of intrigue. It would appear that this controlled, ordered society is not as serene or as perfect as the geneticists and scientists had predicted.
It seems that the more perfect we aspire to be, the less human we become. We are defined and challenged by our mistakes, so therefore we grow and develop.
All the while there is danger present, as Vincent knows that his blood, coursing in his veins could at any time betray him. This is a film which keeps you on the edge of your seat. As an audience you have no idea of how it will resolve itself, the story keeps you gripped, and yet it asks some big questions about society today and where do we want genetic research to go?
Powerful, thoughtful stuff.