Gattaca (1997) is a great example of a movie about the future born of contemporary fears or fascinations, an experiment in seeing how things could play out. In this case, the widespread exposure to the general public about the science of DNA that occurred in the nineties, as well as the start of the Human Genome Project and the race to clone as many animals as possible, had many people worried if not outright terrified (again) of The Future. Wild accusations flew, rumors started every couple months that some evil (or, at least, foreign) scientist had successfully cloned a human in a basement lab somewhere, and a large portion of people started to worry that their children would be faced with the dilemma of whether to submit to some kind of genetically engineered pregnancy governed by an as-yet-created cold, calculating, science-y Authority or flee to the woods to have their all-natural, organic lovechildren and live off of roots and berries.
Okay, maybe the mania wasn’t that intense, and our concerns about our genetic predispositions have matured and become more valid as we’ve moved into the 21st century, but, regardless, a movie like Gattaca seemed inevitable. The film follows the quest of a young man played by Ethan Hawke who was conceived and born without any genetic manipulation in a world where this is uncustomary. In the movie’s terms, he is an “invalid,” with a bum heart that could fail him any moment. As a result his life as a janitor or other lower-class labor monkey is predetermined. But Ethan has big dreams of flying on a starship mission, and he’ll do anything to get there. This is the first great turn of the screw: our genetic outcast hero plays the part of infiltrator instead of hunted victim, and he literally wants the moon (in this case, one of Saturn’s). So not only do we get to explore a world obsessed with genes and potential, we also get to see their space program. Sorry, cocky test pilots and science geeks. In the future astronauts wear suits to work and sit at a desk just like everybody else.
In order to subvert social order and get hired by the space agency Gattaca, Ethan Hawke teams up with early-career Jude Law, who plays a prime specimen who has become paralyzed and has offered his identity up for sale. Ethan uses Law’s piss, blood, saliva, and even records his heartbeat to fool the constant checks on his identity. In return Law gets someone to watch him drink brandy and brood and otherwise keep him in the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed. Law’s portrayal of the cocky yet dependent foil to Ethan Hawke is the strongest of the movie, and he’s often used to break up the otherwise dour environment. Another strength of Gattaca is that the movie likes to keep things simple, however, so there’s not a lot of conflict between the “invalid” taking advantage of the invalid; you really get a sense that they had a few battles as they eased into their shared subterfuge and living quarters, but that Law really wants to see Hawke succeed even if he’s doing it with his name.
The real engine of the story, however, is Hawke’s constant battle to stay one step ahead of those who are looking for him, both passively and actively. The world around him is a trap waiting to snap shut the moment any evidence of his true DNA is discovered, and once a director at the space agency is murdered and Hawke’s true identity becomes the suspect, the police are after him, too. The movie earns high marks from me, though, for taking a really unique approach to the antagonists. The police are like simple G-Men who have machines to do almost all their work for them. They are men who have been blunted by the system they protect, a system that comes close to deterring all crime since it is so easy to get caught. But rather than having some Big Bad Representative of the system sitting behind a wall of monitors spying on the world (V for Vendetta) or protecting a flawed process for perceived social benefit (Minority Report), the contrary force at work is the world itself, which makes it more realistic and fearsome. The system takes drops of blood, not security badges; it has convinced human beings to turn themselves into containable, controllable parcels in the name of progress. It self-perpetuates an order and flow with the subtlety and firmness of a librarian’s warning cough. But since the system is designed for good and everyone has bought into that, there are no menacing figures or evil laughs. Ethan Hawke isn’t there to liberate anyone or change the social order; he’s simply trying to cheat the system. The movie plays such a fair hand that almost everyone ends up complicit in some way, smiling and winking as if to say, You did it, kid, but that doesn’t mean anything has to change. The evil keeps humming in the background, encased in the social and legal codes.
What I really love about this movie is that, at its foundation, it is a Ray Bradbury-esque story about a boy with a dream to become a rocketman stuck in a body that’s been determined too weak to do so and lost in a world with few sympathies. It’s a story that’s long on human endeavor and short on technical jargon with the well-built setting playing its own part like a character. Bradbury was always a master of mood, and this movie revels in his spirit. The fact we know now that a world so confined and focused couldn’t ever just come about through faith in science doesn’t affect the moral at all, because in the end this isn’t about the right and wrong of genetic manipulation, but a caution against widespread exclusion and discrimination. These kinds of stories are abundant in written sci-fi, but it’s a rare and wonderful thing when they find themselves unfolding on film.