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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Gattaca

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman
Director: Andrew Niccol
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: October 1997
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Alan Arkin, Loren Dean, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley, Ernest Borgnine, Blair Underwood, Tony Shalhoub, Elias Koteas

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Gosh, it's bad enough that people are treated like second- class citizens because of their ethnic, religious, and racial circumstances, and as well for their sexual and ideological preferences. As the twenty-first century gets under way, a new excuse for contempt comes along: a disdain for people born out of the loving embrace of men and women, that is, people like you and me. What's so bad about being what we in the year 1997 consider insipidly ordinary? Just this: the vast majority of those living in the near future have been designed in a petri dish: a master race genetically programmed to perform specialized tasks just as purebred dogs are bred for specific traits. These offspring have been engineered like a genetically produced tomato to be free of the natural defects. Radial keratotomy is obsolete, as these new human beings will never become nearsighted. Forget Minoxidil: baldness has been programmed out of existence. No need for phen/fen or Prozac or nitroglycerine tablets as obesity, heart disease and depression simply cannot happen in this brave new world.

We can only guess why, but one couple decide to have their kid born the natural way. When Vincent emerges from the womb he is immediately scanned by the latest medical equipment, and the news is not good: he has an 89% possibility of heart disease, is burdened with Attention Deficit Disorder (though we never see symptoms), and is expected to live only 30.2 years. No wonder the folks decided the next kid, Anton, would go the genetic route.

"Gattaca," which is also the name of a corporation which sends specially designed human beings into space exploration, ranks with "Contact" as one of the two intelligent movies of its genre to hit the screens this year. While "Gattaca" is authentic sci-fi, it features no green people with antennas intent on destroying the earth, no Godzilla-like dinosaurs intent on trampling San Diego to a desert, no Buck Rogers laser guns or giant roaches or brilliant doctors who turn into ghouls without warning. This is adult sci-fi, the sort of picture which is about believable characters living in the very near future as an outgrowth of experiments actually being made today in space travel and genetic engineering. Like other films of its ilk such as "The Stepford Wives" (gender discrimination), and "Logan's Run" (age bigotry), it makes incisive, edgy commentary on our own contemporary world, by showing us the ugly face of prejudice--as experienced by the natural-born Vincent.

Each time Vincent (Ethan Hawke) reads books about space travel, he is warned by his parents to stop dreaming. Because of his genetic flaws--weak heart and attenuated life span--he is unfit for the Gattaca project and will have to content himself with being a sweeper under the supervision of Caesar (Ernest Borgnine) inside the ultra-modern, impeccably clean building which houses the astronauts. When the bespectacled Vincent is introduced by a DNA broker, German (Tony Shalhoub), to Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a superior specimen who has been recently paralyzed, the three work out a deal by which Vincent would assume Jerome's identity and pass himself off as one of the elite--a Valid rather than an Invalid human being. Convinced that one need not play the hand which has been dealt, Vincent uses Jerome's blood and urine samples to pass himself off in his new identity, determined through rigorous training to defy the diagnosis given him at infancy by the doctors.

When the director of the space mission is murdered, detective Hugo (Alan Arkin) discovers an eyelash which is traced to Vincent, who is believed to have disappeared. As investigators close in on the disguised space traveler, Vincent plans his escape with the help of his new love, the genetically flawed Irene (Uma Thurman).

By keeping the action down-to-earth and only cautiously going beyond what has already been accomplished by science, New Zealand born Andrew Niccol's directorial debut is this side of awesome. Using his own screenplay, Mr. Niccol offers a film which obliquely comments on the willingness of so many people nowadays to avoid reaching, much less going beyond, their potential. A film which could be used to inspire schoolchildren, "Gattaca" is never didactic: it does not wear its message of hope and inspiration on its sleeve, but unfolds a story which is compelling science fiction as well as thematically heartening. Ethan Hawke has gone beyond the teen heartthrob role, having matured into a handsome and confident twenty-something actor, whose performance is given solid backing by the tongue-in-cheek Gore Vidal as Gattaca Corporation's wily director, Uma Thurman as the somewhat repressed love object, Jude Law as the despondent, wheelchair-bound hero, and Loren Dean as the genetically perfect brother who turns out to be weaker than the all-too-human Vincent. Alan Arkin is not as amusing as he was as the psychiatrist in "Grosse Pointe Blank" but acquits himself professionally as the insistent detective investigating the director's murder.

Writer-director Niccol is no Luddite. You do not emerge from his movie wanting to tear down the labs of geneticists. After all, if some piano sonatas are written so that only people with twelve fingers can play them--as is the case in this film-- let's design people with twelve fingers. In fact, he is not really against genetic engineering at all. He does, however, most effectively exploit current experiments in the field to fashion an inspirational movie. Even more important, he knows how to tell a crackling good tale.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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