Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moody movies that move me: Gattaca

I never fail to well up watching Gattaca. Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law ad Uma Thurman, this sci-fi thriller is ostensibly about prejudice, which in the future is based not on your race or religion, but your genetic make-up thanks to great advances in genetic engineering. Science has developed to the point that one's susceptibility for diseases can be determined at birth, as well as life-expectancy.

Vincent, the protagonist, played by Hawke, being a child born of love rather than engineering, suffers myopia and a heart condition that should prove fatal at age 30. His parents, rattled by the news of Vincent's failings, decide to engineer their next child, Anton, the boy good enough to be named for his father. A sibling rivalry develops between Vincent and Anton who is superior in every physical way. The rivalry peaks in dangerous swimming contests to see who can swim out the farthest without tiring. I don't want to spoil your experience of the movie, so I'll just say one contest is a turning point for Vincent, and he leaves home to go underground as an unregistered citizen, or invalid.

Vincent dreams of being an astronaut, something I strongly identify with. I had the same dream as a child too, but my father whom I completely adored, told me women couldn't be astronauts and I believed him. My father was born in 1916, lived through the first great depression, and was too hard at work to realize the women's movement was happening. Vincent's dad told him the only way he'd see the inside of a spaceship was if he was cleaning it. With Vincent's genetic make-up, being relegated to the lower class was his future. "Genetics as destiny" as we hear in the film.

As an unregistered, Vincent works his way through underclass jobs until he lands a janitorial job at Gattaca, the space facility. His boss, Caesar, played by Ernest Borgnine, tells Vincent not to clean the glass so well he can see himself on the other side where the Valids, the best of the genetic best, work. But Vincent is determined and finds a way to do it. This is where Jude Law, as Jerome Morrow, comes in. Jerome is a paralyzed former swimming star with excellent genetics who is willing to sell his DNA code in order to keep living the good life. I won't get into the details of how this bargain works, but in the film it's fascinating to watch. There is always the chance of Vincent being found out.

The thrill part of the thriller comes in when a murder occurs at Gattaca. I don't want to spoil any of this so I will be vague here. The police investigation of the murder raies the possibility of Vincent being found into high gear, out just as Vincent is about to go on his first space mission.

So what is there to love here? What moves me? So much.

The film is at least 50% its original score composed by Michael Nyman, which is moody and brilliant all the way through. The music is more text than subtext. I can't imagine this film without it. Try closing your eyes and listening to the score. Then try turning off the sound and watching the film. You'll see what I mean. The music is integral.

And then there is the wonderfully appropriate look of the film, a kind of dusky amber glow lights nearly every scene. Some have compared Gattaca to film noir for its moodiness and lack of bright lighting, and perhaps for the Uma Thurman femme fatalish character who is Vincent's love interest at the space center. And there is criminal activity so to speak, Vincent's assuming another's genetic identity. So perhaps it is a film noir set in the future.

What is truly moving is the character of Vincent himself, who is determined to realize his dream of being an astronaut in the face of ridiculous odds. He won't let anything stand in his way, not his family members, nor the corrupt biased system that governs society. Also, the restrained relationship that develops between Jerome and Vincent is powerful to watch.

There is a Dickens quality to the story as well, with so many parallels in the plot. I won't point them all out because they will be fun to look for yourself. But here are a few. The father tells Vincent the only way he'll get close to being an astronaut is being a janitor and that is exactly how Vincent does it. There are interesting contrasts and similarities in the relationship between Vincent and Anton to the relationship between Vincent and Jerome. Jerome and Anton, have a lot in common in fact.

Director Andrew Nichol may be better known for The Truman Show, another film that takes a critical look at society, but Gattaca is every bit as worthy of recognition. Also, worthy of note, performances by Gore Vidal, Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, Xander Berkeley, Blair Underwood, Tony Shaloub, and Ernest Borgnine.

As the year draws to a close, I tend to think about losses, things left undone, all that didn't go well--my failures. I get a little caught up in "the darkness on the edge of town" to quote Springsteen. But I try not to dwell there. I try to move forward, to head out toward the realm of the possible. I do this by remembering everything I have to be grateful for, loved ones (even those gone), health, a roof over my head in a place I want to be, the luxury of self-expression and so much more. And films like Gattaca remind me too, never lose hope, never give up, the only failure is to not try.

The power of the human spirit is the message of Gattaca, delivered through wonderful story telling, unique cinematography, great acting, and a remarkable score.


  1. It is a great film. It succeeds in being beautiful and inspirational without ever being preachy. I like the Dickens comparison, nothing beats good story telling.

  2. By the way, I watched this again yesterday, because I couldn't pass it up on Instant Netflix after your blog got me thinking about it again. It's still really good!

  3. There is something about Gattaca that most people can relate too. The idea that what we are isn't enough to satisfy those who seem to matter. But sometimes the person who wants it more gets it before the person who has more talent for it.


  4. i have to do an oral on this movie for an assignment. i had never heard of 'Gattaca' before i had seen it at school and i found it amazing. Most people would think it was only about the advances in technology, when it's really about human spirit, going against discrimination and how perfection doesn't really exist.
    It was so meaningful and enjoyable. i loved every bit of it.