Friday, May 14, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Gattaca" (1997)

"Gattaca" is a great modern example of good old-fashioned "hard" science fiction.

Back in the day, sci-fi writers were obsessed with technology and the how-tos of things like space exploration and time travel. Only later did the genre become more concerned with how people existed psychologically in fantastical settings, what helped them emotionally navigate the stars.

Put it this way: "Star Trek" is a franchise that started out as hard science fiction, and got softer as time went on.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol's 1997 film is obsessed with minutia of a how a genetically inferior human -- an In-Valid -- passes himself off as one of the test tube-created Valid elites. We watch in fascination as Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) carefully scrapes his skin down every day, fills false finger pad prosthetics with blood and surreptitiously dumps capsules full of skin flakes and hair follicles at his work station.

All this is so he can pass himself off as Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), one of the anointed who was paralyzed in a car crash and is renting himself out as a "borrowed ladder." The term refers to the double helix that makes up the genetic code. Jerome stays at home, filling up specimen bags and vials with his blood, urine and surface detritus, which Vincent then uses to pass the frequent genetic scans necessary for access to the upper echelons of society.

It's a world in the proverbial not-too-distant future, where ancestry determines the future.

Vincent/Jerome is amazed when applies for a job at Gattaca, the mammoth agency that runs all the space missions that he yearns to voyage on, and is accepted after a scan of his urine. What about the interview, he asks, and is told that was it. "My real resume is in my cells," he narrates. "We now have discrimination down to a science."

Vincent is a "God child" -- one of the unwashed who was conceived naturally. Later his parents decided to have another son, Anton, using genetic screening. As a teenager, Vincent's father shoots down his dream of becoming exploring space in the harshest terms, pointing to the 99 percent chance the doctors foretold that his faulty heart will not allow him to live past age 30: "The only way you will ever see the inside of a spaceship is if you are cleaning it."

Undeterred by the total lack of parental faith, or the preening bigotry of his younger brother, Vincent takes a job as a janitor at Gattaca, spending his nights pumping up his frail body and studying to be a space navigator. But all his applications are a dead end as soon as he's asked for a DNA sample.

Then he meets a "degener" broker (Tony Shalhoub) who pairs up In-Valids with Valids. Upon meeting Jerome, glumly trolling around his swank modernist apartment in a wheelchair, Vincent complains that he can't pass as him since Jerome is British. "Blood has no nationality," the broker smoothly assures. "As long as it's got what they're looking for, it's the only passport you'll ever need."

And it works. Vincent/Jerome has spent the last few years working his way up the rungs at Gattaca, and is slated for the next mission to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, the next week.

Then all hell breaks loose when the program director is murdered, bludgeoned to death with his own keyboard. Despite his precautions, a single eyelash of Vincent's is found nearby, so all suspicion falls upon him. Of course, the authorities can't find him, because they don't know he's living as Jerome.

Alan Arkin plays a crusty police detective who wants to do scans of all the Gattaca employees, Valid and In-Valid, but his boss (Loren Dean) is worried at upsetting the company honcho (Gore Vidal) by disturbing their work.

Even though the story is set up as a whodunit, "Gattaca" is so much more enjoyable beyond the potboiler plot mechanics. It's wonderful to sit back and soak in the textures and the subtext.

For example, dating is tricky in a world based on eugenics. Uma Thurman plays Irene, a co-worker at Gattaca who takes a keen interest in "Jerome" as a potential mate. She steals a hair from his desk drawer (which had been carefully placed there) and takes it to a genetic boutique. There the clientele -- mostly women -- anonymously turn in bits of DNA they've collected on the sly for scanning (one woman has her lips swabbed after a kiss). Irene is complimented on her purloined hair: "A 9.3 ... quite a catch!"

Irene fesses up to her crime to Vincent/Jerome, and even admits that she has a slight imperfection with her heart that will keep her from ever blasting off into deep space. She plucks a blonde hair from her head and offers it to him for scanning, telling him to get back to him if he's still interested.

Sounds horrible, but is it really that dissimilar from today's dating world where prospects offer their vital statistics online -- often fudged, particular when it comes to male height and female weight -- and people run criminal background checks before the first date, and research credit history before getting in too deep?

Or consider the film's outright discrimination against the genetically inferior, or "genelism." The sorting of people into one walk of life or another based on a DNA scan is an extreme representation, but again, we can find parallels in our current society.

People are denied medical coverage, or charged exorbitant rates for it, based on mere predispositions toward certain conditions -- often determined by the health of one's parents, grandparents and siblings. And anyone who's ever shopped around for life insurance can attest to the ridiculous premiums demanded if something like diastolic blood pressure comes up a couple of blips above what is considered ideal.

I love the look of the film, which was nominated for an Oscar for art direction. It's sort of an early 1960s New Frontier meets 1940s film noir, flavored with a futuristic antiseptic look. The Valid women and men wear similar dark suits, and troll around with their hands grasped behind them. Cars resemble little classic European sports cars converted to electricity.

What's most disturbing about "Gattaca" is the way everyone seems to blithely accept this "DNA is destiny" mentality -- all except Vincent, of course. He seems driven as much to prove himself to be as good as any of the genetically pure humans as any actual desire for space travel. His real grasping for something beyond his human limitations occurs within.

3.5 stars out of four

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