Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movie Review: "Gattaca" by David Pretty

Greetings, Valids and Not-So-Valids!

Y'know, as much as our Canadian-flavored Netflix pisses me off (with its constantly varying video quality, lack of selection and over-representation of films starring giant sharks, crocodiles and/or octopi), there are still some pretty cool things about it.  For one, it's kinda like home video's answer to The Gong Show.  After all, if you're watching a movie on Netflix and it starts to suck like a Dyson, you can just abandon it without feeling as if you paid money to see that specific thing.  You can then promptly move on to something else.

Another good test is to see how many sittings it takes to get through a film.  If it's a three or four night slog, then you probably would have been better advised just watching a half-dozen old X-Men cartoons instead.

But the opposite also holds true.  We live in a time when a million things are constantly vying for our entertainment attentions, so it's pretty high testimony when you fire up a flick at home and it keeps you absolutely rapt for a hundred and six minutes.  Hell, nowadays, that's positively miraculous...

And so it was with Gattaca.  The premise is intriguingly odd and original, revelations are doled out economically and the characters are fully-realized.  In other words, it's a one-sitter.

Here's the trailer:

In the early 90's there were emerging concerns about genetic engineering.  Herbicide-resistant crops were being produced.  In 1996 Dolly the sheep became the very first artificially cloned mammal.  Genetic knockout experiments on mice altered their appearance and behavior.  Gattaca cleverly extrapolated the headlines of the day to create an original sci-fi dystopia in which people are locked into societal roles based entirely on the genetic hand of cards dealt to them at birth.

In the "not too distant future", prospective parents routinely use eugenics to select the gender of their children and eliminate any unwanted characteristics.  The hero of our story, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is conceived the old-fashioned way and comes into the world burdened by a whole host of passé deficiencies.  His poor eyesight, short stature and bum ticker immediately disqualify him from most desirable career paths, including his ultimate wish of becoming an astronaut.

But the film wisely posits that for every societal inequity there's always an illegal solve.  Vincent opts for the  "borrowed ladder" route and assumes the identity of Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically pristine ex-swimmer who became irreparably "marred" when an accident left him paralyzed from the waist-down.  Using Jerome's hair, skin, blood and urine samples, Vincent manages to weasel his way into Gattaca's space training program, all the while risking constant danger of exposure.

After taking great pains to forge the perfect public mask, Vincent proves to be a crackerjack navigator and eventually he's selected for a manned space mission to Titan.  At the same time, he begins a tentative relationship with a co-worker named Irene (Uma Thurman), who's own genetic lottery has curtailed her own progress and left her envious of Vincent's illusory "perfection".

Things are complicated when an on-site director is brutally murdered, prompting the authorities to sweep the facility with a fine tooth comb (literally).  When Vincent's real eyelash is discovered close to the crime scene, he's forced to avoid a series of increasingly tough snares designed to drag his real DNA kicking and screaming into the light.

Sci-fi, good sci-fi, should operate successfully on two levels.  First, it should take advantage of modern day cinematic whiz-bangery to create a visually compelling story.  Second, it should be about big ideas.  Both of these qualities need to be complementary.  One shouldn't outstrip the other yet both elements ought to be thoroughly enjoyable when taken by itself.  This is where Gattaca shines.

In fact, it's one of those rare films where the big idea is actually allowed to rise above the spectacle.  Wisely director Andrew Niccol fosters the film's powerful premise by lensing things as realistically as possible.  There are no elaborate visual effects to speak of.  Most of the sets are real locations in and around Los Angeles.  His cool, crisp shooting style is successfully married to genuine moments of cinéma vérité, all of  which foster a sense of realism.  For example, the scene where Vincent and Irene witness the sunrise is particularly evocative.

Of course the film has loads of subtext and social commentary to boost its pedigree.  I'm particularly keen on the philosophy that aptitude and hard work can overcome the limitations of physical imperfection.  I appreciate that Vincent is able to best his genetically superior brother Anton (Loren Dean) because he's   hungrier, more determined and doesn't feel entitled for being blessed with a perfect double-helix.

Ethan Hawke is well-cast.  He's able to convincingly sell Vincent's transformation from mawkish dweeb to illusory Übermensch.  Even though he's asked to adopt a convincing air of swagger, there always seems to be a little hint of susceptibility lurking just under the surface which always threatens to betray him.  His performance is a great mix of steely determination, desperate guile and tentative bravado.

Uma Thurman has no problem whatsoever convincing us that she's a genetically superior entity.   Although only 27 at the time of Gattaca's release, she clearly had the acting chops to pull off refined, dignified and self-assured even then.  It certainly helps that Niccol didn't write Irene as a lowest common denominator love interest and actually had the temerity to invest her character with a real arc.  Thurman does a stellar job taking Irene from a perfection-obsessed drone who's resigned to her lot in life to a willing rebel.

Jude Law is a particular treat as Jerome.  The first time we see him, he's sitting slumped in his wheelchair like an unwanted pet while Vincent and German (Tony Shalhoub) casually discuss co-opting his identity as if he isn't even there.  In some odd way, Vincent's mission seems to renew his purpose in life.  Living vicariously through his new charge, Jerome diligently toils away at maintaining Vincent's facade as if railing against the system itself.  When we learn the true story behind his accident, his circumstances become even more tragic.

Which brings me to a few of the film's flaws.  Above and beyond the anachronistic trappings (such as the inexplicable proliferation of smoking in the film and this future's dogged insistence on using standard keyboards), Jerome's final fate is almost inconceivable to me.  I understand why he does what he does, I just can't wrap my head around the method he uses to see it through.

But these are minor quibbles.  Perhaps the most encouraging thing Gattaca says is that human nature will always rail against inequities.  We even see this in the role of Lamar (Xander Berkeley), the test scientist who's own genetically imperfect son longs to follow in Vincent's footsteps.  Even if shady forces lead the development of the human race down dark paths, there will always be enough people wronged by the system who will do whatever they can to dismantle it from the inside out.

And that, for some reason, is supremely comforting thought.


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