On Oct. 24, 1997, Columbia Pictures unveiled Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi thriller Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
In the near future, racial, sexual and social discrimination will be out — that’s the good news.
In the near future, genetic evaluation will rule — that’s the bad news in this cautionary glimpse into a future time when your genetic code will be your resume.
Stylishly scoped with ice-blue hues and smartly visualized with a forbiddingly cold design, Gattaca is an intelligently-conceived sci-fi chiller starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Sony will find strong appeal among college students. Unfortunately, like many of this species, the characters are an icy-veined and largely unemotional species that ultimately squander this provocative premise, reducing it to the status of visual essay rather than full-blooded human story.
Splicing together notions of a master race and the generic story form of man’s arrogance in messing with divine planning, screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol has concocted a zesty story potion.
Catalyzing the yarn is the rivalry of two brothers, Vincent (Hawke) and Anton (Loren Dean). Vincent’s future is limited, based on his inferior genetic code, while Anton’s is dazzling. Indeed, in this futuristic society, one’s future is determined seconds after birth, when a single blood sample can foretell everything from IQ to approximate time and cause of death. It’s a predetermined world, where those with inferior genetics are referred to as “de-generates,” classified as invalids, and, essentially, sentenced to a life of low-level drudgery.
What of the human spirit, what of hope? That is the beguiling core of Niccol’s drama. In his scenario, Vincent dreams of being a deep-space navigator but with his makeup it will never come to be. But there are ways get around this unalterable fact; happily, there is a black market for the right genetic stuff. Vincent deals to get the essence of a brilliant young man, Jerome (Jude Law) who has been crippled in an accident.
With the help of Jerome’s perfection genes, Vincent takes on Jerome’s identity, winning the navigational job he has long sought.
While Niccol’s theme is a winning one, and his premise perceptively brainy, Gattaca is of inferior stock in its narrative backbone. Once past its razzle-dazzle procedurals of Vincent getting a new genetic identity, it degenerates into a mid-section of lethargic tedium: essentially, the second half of the film is mired in the flat dramatic dynamic question of whether or not Vincent/Jerome will be found out.
Unfortunately, given his stoic, almost autonomic nature, we don’t really care. While Niccol makes calculated and perfunctory expositional references to “hope,” there is no passion in the characterizations. You’d have to watch Star Trek reruns to encounter a more soul-less gaggle of stiffs, or view documentaries on Hitler Youth to see such mechanical arrogance.
While the narrative decomposes, the visuals are altogether superior. Admittedly, former commercials director Niccol is terrific at composing looks; however, an assemblage of glossy, gelid sequences does not necessarily add up to a satisfying cohesive film.
Still, the technical team is undeniably elite. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak’s stylishly cold scopings are magnificent, heightened by composer Michael Nyman’s unsettling sounds. Jan Roelfs’ production design is sensational — it’s as if Albert Speer commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to create the physical universe. It’s human-unfriendly, to say the least.
Given the constraints of the writing, Hawke is fine as the ambitious Vincent/Jerome. As the uber-girl, Thurman is shrewdly chosen; alas, her portrayal is confined to mannequin dimension. Fortunately, the minor characters have more human blood in them: Alan Arkin is entertaining as a Columbo-ish investigator, while Gore Vidal is well-cast as a haughty man of science.
The most full-blooded performance is served up by Law, the young man whose promising life was shattered by an accident and who has chosen to give his genetic code to Vincent: we feel his anguish and exult in his vicarious joys. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Sept. 8, 1997