Film Reviews

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.

Rated PG-13.
112 minutes.

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Bill Gallo