Sunday, 27 June 2010

Review movie - Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

In the not so distant future, Jerome Morrow (Ethan Hawke), top celestial navigator at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, is about to embark for a mission to one of Saturn's moons, Titan. Except, he isn't really Jerome Morrow. Born Vincent Freeman, he is what is euphemistically called a "God Child", a child conceived naturally which, in these times when liberal eugenics have become the norm, never fails to attract a bit of awe and a great deal of pity. Pity because your life is dictated by your genes, in every aspect: genes are what determine how old you can hope to become, but also what will be your place in society. Indeed, what employer in their right mind would bet on someone whose DNA test reveals a high probability of developing schizophreny, a life expectency that shouldn't exceed 30 and who might drop dead at any moment from heart failure? But Vincent, from a very young age, develops a fascination - if not an obsession - with space. Fighting the prejudices against him that had plagued him from his childhood (his younger brother, Anton (Loren Dean) was engineered and seemed better and more performant than Vincent in most respects), he decides that he will get into Gattaca and earn himself a chance to fly into space, at any costs. Even if that means buying and assuming the identity of another man (down to replacing his own DNA material - tissues and fluids - for the purpose of the daily routine tests performed at Gattaca), Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), whose genetic make-up is "second to none" but whose programmed success was foiled by an accident that has since left him paralyzed from the waist down. But as Vincent is finally about to reach his goal, the death of the mission's director triggers a manhunt for his murderer than not only threatens to expose his identity but also his burgeoning relationship with his co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman). And it doesn't help that while Jerome Morrow is progressively eliminated from the list of suspects, Vincent's real DNA was found on the scene and that his own, estranged brother is leading the investigations....

I was lucky to be just old enough at the time of the release of "Gattaca" to have seen it in theatre, and to this day, that experience still haunts me. At the time, we had literally never seen anything like this, a remark valid both for its amazing and unique visual style and atmosphere but also for its main theme and its treatment throughout the movie. To be honest, I am amazed that the project got greenlighted at all because it was at the time too new in all respects to have a real chance at the box office - and as a matter of fact, despite widespread critical acclaim, it only made a third of what it supposedly cost at the American box office during its theatrical run. But what it did do was shape the public debate about genetics/(liberal) eugenism and while that in itself will not bring money to the studio's coffers, it should be one more proof that sometimes at least, artistic considerations should override economical ones, at least to a certain extent

But let's go back to the film. As already mentionned, it is a stunner visually. However, for a movie usually referred to as science fiction, it is one which action happens entirely on Earth and which only concerns itself with human matters and therefore uses none of the special effects you might expect from that genre. What you will get though is a superb film noir aesthetic that is consistant in all aspects: from architecture to clothes (the simple, impeccable lines of the formal apparel of Gattaca employees and "valid", genetically engineered people as a whole, the classic detectives' costumes, complete with hats), from cars (mostly 50s and 60s models but fitted with futuristic details) to cinematography, everything points to the fact that the murder and the police investigation, while not the beating heart of the story, nonetheless drives it; and even more importantly, while we are told that the action takes place in the not too distant future, it also serves to anchor the movie in a very tangible reality, one that we recognize, and therefore helps make the questions raised by it all the more relevant, more directly connected to our day and age

Those visual cues also serve to tell part of the story itself. Clothes' lines are very '50s and very clean, but they also lack considerably of variety in color and shape: it is particularly stricking whenever Jerome finds himself among his colleagues in the Gattaca centre: here are people who all stand in neatly formed queues or progress in the large halls in perfect order, and who all look remarkably similar: although the movie never really addresses directly one of the issues surrounding (liberal) eugenism - a tendancy to promote specific genetic characteristics to the detriment of others, thus reducing the human gene pool and diversity - it does propose an image of what the result might look like, and while it is not downright unpleasant, there is something ever so slightly disturbing about these scenes

Architecture too plays a significant role in the way we perceive things. Again, the lines are very strict, very simple but the most outstanding aspect is the visual relationship between buildings and characters. When it comes to outside environments, characters are more often than not dwarfed by architecture, an impression reinforced by the cinematography with a choice of hues during outside scenes that makes everything in the background look like it belongs with the building, forming an almost uniform block against people's silhouettes. This is replaced by a sense of almost claustrophobia, of oppression inside the Gatta buildings, itself compounded by intelligent camera work. All in all, it gives off a sense that this new order, this society based on one's genetical makeup and the race for perfection that humanity has established for itself is too solid to fight against. And what chance can you hope to have when society knows everything about you and about what you will become?

Another real tour de force of the movie is its casting: because to keep in line with the feel of it, they had to choose actors who would look right, in particular for the main characters, which of course leads to the issue of whether or not they are able to act right, an issue all the more important that this movie is heavily character-centred. That Uma Thurman turned up another strong performance isn't really a surprise (that she looks absolutely amazing isn't exactly one either). But the stand-out performances really belong to Ethan Hawke and Jude Law. Ethan Hawke is what I would consider a good actor but not a great one; Jude Law has been inconsistant, delivering some good performances followed by real let-downs; yet both managed to step up to it, infusing grace into complex, layered characters and their scenes together, particularly towards the end, are what surprised me the most by their intensity

Of course, at the heart of this movie really is its theme, the questions that it asks regarding liberal eugenism. For once though, I do not intend to develop it here, because I feel that it's just too large a debate and I wouldn't be able to do it justice, both because I wouldn't give it the space it deserves and because my own knowledge in the matter is pretty limited. I'd much rather encourage you to watch this movie and look up for your own answers. But there are a couple of additional points I'd like to make. At the time I saw this film, that is in 1997, cloning had just started to make the headlines. While we knew it was possible, and we could begin to perceive its application to humans, it was only sometime still pretty far away in the future. Fastforward a dozen years or so, and all of a sudden the distance between now and the day the reality described by Gattaca could become ours seems to have shrunken dramatically, making the movie even more pertinent now than it was then. Another thing I thought was pretty brilliant is how Niccol restrained from making it too much of a "me vs. the rest of the world" affair: we slowly come to realize that Vincent is not the only one we ought to pity in this. If anything, Jerome is just as much a victim of his outstanding DNA as Vincent is of his "poor" genetical makeup, at least by society's standards. And while Vincent found motivation in adversity, the pressure to perform up to his genetic potential has literally crushed Jerome. In a way, there is something slightly reassuring about this: even with eugenism the norm, there are just some things - things that make us humans - that cannot be engineered

And finally, while it is a (very) intelligent film, it doesn't try to be too clever: it never looks down at its audience, and while it is obvious that the filmmaker has an opinion, it doesn't try to tell you how to think but prefers instead to give you elements, an example from which to start a real, valid debate about one of the most important questions mankind may face about itself, not just in the future, but which has already started to affect us now. A great, poignant story, beautifully told which gives you food for thought and which respects the viewer: the receipe for a good movie sounds pretty straightforward and yet, it is so rarely completely successful. All the more reason to regard "Gattaca" as the miraculous, cult object it is

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