Published November 1, 1997
Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol is one of those hokey “futuristic” flicks which is really a form of pandering to a very present-day paranoia. It does not exactly require a huge leap of imagination to project a “not-too-distant future” in which gene-typing has become so swift and reliable that state security will have become all but infallible. In fact, Orwell imagined such a future fifty years ago, only for him the relevant technology was the television. Either way, the issue is the same, and this film has not managed to go beyond Orwell—or, indeed, so far as he—in any discernible way. It preserves his vision of a class system based on those who make up a ruling élite and everybody else, only here the ruling elite is genetically engineered while the despised proletariat are those who have come into the world by traditional methods.
If the conception is a tired one, the story is really absurd. Ethan Hawke plays an “in-valid” prole, a cleaner called Vincent, who is so genetically imperfect that a congenital heart defect is 99 per cent certain to kill him before he is 30. His dream is to be chosen to go on an expedition to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn—unthinkable for anyone but a “valid” member of the élite. So he finds, through a shady broker (Tony Shalhoub), a “valid” called Jerome (Jude Law) who has broken his back and become a cripple and wishes no longer to hang out with fellow members of the élite. This may be a moral or a political decision—it is suggested that he deliberately stepped out in front of the car when he had his accident—or it may just be a matter of personal taste, but Mr Niccol never troubles to inform us. Anyway, Jerome agrees to supply Vincent with his identity and an endless supply of blood and urine samples to defeat the security system for the rest of his life, in return for a share of his earnings.
Does Vincent/Jerome make it to Saturn? Can he beat the murder rap when a cost-cutting superior is killed and the eyelash of a phantom “in-valid” (Vincent!) is found on the premises? Can he find true love with Uma Thurman? Can he beat his younger, “valid” brother (Loren Dean) in a swimming competition? Who could possibly care? No one will mistake Vincent for a real human being, whose fate could possibly engage us. His purpose is just to stand in for the stock character of the little man who beats the oppressive hi-tech system, and who gets away with it because, as the real Jerome tells him, “They won’t believe that one of their élite could have suckered them all this time. . .When they look at you, they don’t see you anymore. They see me.”
There is one thing worth watching in this comic farrago, and that is Gore Vidal in the role of Director Josef, Jerome’s superior at Gattaca who is so keen to get the mission to Saturn off that he murders the government inspector who had threatened it with his cutbacks. When for a moment it occurs to the police detective (Alan Arkin) to suspect him, the director haughtily tells him: “Take another look at my profile, detective; there’s not a violent bone in my body.” Vidal, who never acts as anyone but Vidal, is perfect in this paranoid fantasy, and must have loved slipping on the mask as the mythical master-spirit of the counter-revolution whom he has never seen but of whose existence he has always been convinced.