Coded for Success
In Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, the cleverest (if not quite the most convincing) science-fiction movie of the year, the near future is inhabited by designer humans whose DNA codes have been rigged at the lab for conformist perfection and by "in-valids," the inferior products of parents who've relied on mere faith and love to produce their offspring. Never the twain shall meet: In this variation of Brave New World, the dispassionate test-tube types get all the breaks; the defectives are made to mop up after them.
So what's an ambitious in-valid to do? If he's Vincent (Ethan Hawke) and he's set his sights on rocketing off to Titan, Saturn's 14th moon, he makes a deal with a "valid" named Jerome (Jude Law) who's been knocked out of the success picture by a paralyzing accident, then tries to pass as a genetic impostor. Given all the spot checks, this isn't easy. How would you like to walk around with bags of someone else's urine and samples of his skin?
Niccol, a young New Zealander who made his bones on TV commercials, has the old Huxley/Orwell paranoia down pat, and he shows an affection for the kind of 1950s sci-fi flick in which the uniforms are color-coded according to social status and the identity police (here led by Alan Arkin) are tenacious bulldogs. The style and architecture of Gattaca's world are retro-slick (there's nice work by production designer Jan Roelfs and costumer Colleen Atwood), and the message is one we've heard many times before: The urges of the human heart outrank the soulless perfection of the petri dish.
Vincent's difficulties are compounded when the head of his space agency is murdered and the genetic-engineering cops descend to find a single alien eyelash -- an eyelash with Vincent's own DNA -- at the scene. Vincent's will to prevail is bolstered by a romance with Irene (Uma Thurman), a "valid" obsessed with a minor defect of her own. Will the lovers survive assault by an anti-human bureaucracy? You tell me.
Amid all the techno-thrills and futurist fantasies, Niccol brings the kind of sentiment -- and downright solemnity -- to his work that the sci-fi crowd gobbles up and that more skeptical types can find vaguely annoying. Little matter: Here's an inventive, frequently compelling take on the future that manages to write its own rules, produce its own look and come up with a hero who's worthy of our attention. Maybe this talented new director has filmmaking in his genes.
Directed by Andrew Niccol. With Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin and Jude Law.
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