For a certain type of science fiction story, there are few higher honors than to be characterized by the much-coveted phrase: ‘thinking person’s sci-fi’. In a perfect world, such a descriptor would be superfluous; you’d think that science fiction, by its very nature, would give us something to think about every time we venture into it. And, technically, I suppose it does, but as with any well-defined genre, in reality there’s quite a chasm between the genre’s full potential and most of what the entertainment industry offers up. So it has always been with science fiction, and especially in the past few decades, as superhero and fantasy movies have come to dominate the box office (to the point of providing the lion’s share of yearly revenue for the studios who make them). Most sci-fi movies these days seem to fall into two broad categories. On the one hand, we have the ‘serious’ ones for the thinking audience: small and narrowly focused, engaging us on lower budgets either by venturing into wild and weird territory, or by creating imagined worlds that look mostly like our own, with only a few select suspensions of disbelief. And on the other hand, we have the massive blockbusters, using the now-basically-unlimited capabilities of special effects to entertain us largely through extraordinary visuals: the physics-defying action set pieces and the vividly rendered fantasy worlds. There are exceptions (Ex Machina, The Martian, pretty much everything Christopher Nolan does), but overall, the combination of interesting ideas, compelling visuals, and excellent filmmaking is so rare in sci-fi that it feels like a real gift from above when it does come about. And there are few better examples of this than Gattaca, a wonderfully crafted, visually exquisite dystopian parable whose concerns about genetic engineering are just as thought-provoking today as they were when it came out in 1997—so much so that a 2011 poll of NASA scientists rated it the best sci-fi movie of all time.[i]
Gattaca isn’t perfect (no movie is) but it’s still something of a cinematic miracle—and an interesting one, both on its own terms and in the ways it stands out from its genre counterparts. It’s always notable when a speculative sci-fi movie still feels relevant and insightful multiple decades after its release, and that’s certainly the case here. Gattaca’s vision of a world based on genetic discrimination arose out of events and realities specific to its time: the use of genetically modified crops was exploding; the Human Genome Project was humming along and nearing completion; and Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal, had just been born. But the issues the movie raises have only grown thornier in the intervening years, especially recently. With the new CRISPR gene-editing technology potentially enabling exactly this sort of selective conception, and with growing awareness of the depth of humanity’s discriminatory instincts and of its commitment to the increasingly dubious social ideology of meritocracy, some version of the (smartly unspecified) ‘not too distant future’ portrayed in the movie seems both closer and more dangerous than ever.
The movie was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, a thoughtful Kiwi filmmaker who left New Zealand at age twenty-one and paid his dues in London, directing TV commercials for over a decade before he finally got the chance to make a proper movie. Gattaca was that first feature, and it’s kind of miraculous that Niccol was ever allowed to make another; like so many eventual classics, the movie was popular with critics but a pretty resounding failure at the box office. I’ve noticed that this has become a standard feature of these articles: the part where I explore, in perhaps unnecessary detail, how this month’s great director got to this point, how we might define their artistic sensibilities, and how our given movie relates to the rest of their estimable body of work. We’re still doing that, obviously, but it’s at least a bit different this month. Niccol’s story is a somewhat rarer one in the film industry, and one that I actually find much more interesting: the filmmaker who makes an inspired first (or early) feature, but whose subsequent work never quite rises to the same level. Niccol’s interest in science fiction and the human ramifications of new technology has continued, and he’s still had a successful career, working slowly but steadily over the past twenty-odd years. Some of his movies have been so-so (S1m0ne, 2002), some bad yet commercially successful (In Time, 2011), and some quite good (Lord of War, 2005 and Good Kill, 2014)—but so far, he’s never quite managed to equal the peculiar magic that he worked with Gattaca, when he was still in his early thirties. (Interestingly, his best work besides Gattaca was around the same time, on a movie he wrote but did not direct: the 1998 dramedy classic The Truman Show.)
The reasons for Niccol’s uneven filmography are perhaps unknowable, but we can certainly shed some light on why Gattaca, in particular, works so well. I mentioned before that it’s not a perfect movie because no such movie exists—and that’s true, but in this case there are specific weaknesses that even an ardent admirer like myself can identify. Especially in the first act, the movie is a bit too heavy on exposition, delivered via voice-over narration that starts to become excessive. There are a few holes in the plot and world-building that can rankle if you can’t suspend disbelief. And while the writing and acting are strong overall, there are clunky phrases that, combined with the rarefied, highly mannered setting in which the story takes place, lead to moments of awkwardness in the performances. These are all minor issues, none of which would come close to spoiling the movie for me in any case. But Gattaca is one of those happy instances in which such minor flaws are almost completely overshadowed by other aspects of the movie that are not just great, but genuinely unusual and interesting.
The most obvious of these strengths would have to be the movie’s wonderfully distinctive aesthetic. In its own unique way, this is one of the most visually stunning sci-fi movies I’ve seen, which is remarkable when you consider how few stunts and special effects are involved. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, for example, is a gorgeously interesting exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, it’s very reserved, almost stately, working mostly with carefully framed static shots; the camera moves, when they do occur, tend to be discreet and intuitive, rarely drawing attention to themselves. The few instances of jittery, handheld camerawork are reserved for moments of high tension, and specifically those involving real physical danger, like a scuffle and chase through a back alley, or the nerve-racking swimming competitions between our protagonist, Vincent, and his brother Anton. Obstacles that are conquered via quick wits and composure, like an endurance test at Gattaca or a nail-biting traffic stop, are depicted with the usual precision and restraint. But on the other hand, ‘restrained’ is not necessarily how you’d describe the cinematography as a whole, because it doesn’t account for Idziak’s dazzling use of color. He infuses all those stately images with strikingly rich color schemes: warm yellows for the sleek, sun-drenched living areas and outdoor spaces; cool blues and greens for clinical settings, like the Gattaca testing facilities and the home laboratory where Vincent and Eugene prepare the tools of their deception; and for the grander areas of Gattaca and the ritzy public establishments, a lavish medley of silver, gold, and deep brown, evoking the mixture of cutting-edge modernity and old-school elegance that defines this world. The cinematography captures the essential, contradictory nature of this imagined future and the lives of those who inhabit it: beautiful and luxurious, representing new heights of human sophistication, yet so aggressively refined and tightly regimented that it becomes impersonal and oppressive—sometimes even surreal.
And yet Gattaca is just as much (if not more so) a triumph of another key aspect of visual filmmaking: the purview of a small army of people who are essential to any movie, but whose names are hardly ever known outside the film world. Case in point: I’ve barely mentioned the art department in previous articles. But you can’t discuss what makes Gattaca great without noting the work of production designer Jan Roelfs and his many lieutenants: art director Sarah Knowles, set decorator Nancy Nye, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and the dozens of stylists, concept artists, carpenters, painters, and laborers of all kinds who (often literally) craft the remarkable images that the camera captures. Niccol is instrumental in this as well—it’s his vision that these people are bringing to the screen—but the task is so comprehensive, and the work so varied, that it’s hard to see it exclusively, or even primarily, as the achievement of one person. Gattaca is a prime example of a wonderful thing that sometimes happens in the movies. Maybe Niccol always had a crystal-clear vision, maybe Roelfs and the rest guided him to it, maybe it was a happy instance of the right people linking up with the right premise… only those who worked on the production can know the exact reasons, but however it happened, everyone seems to have let their imaginations run away with them in the best possible way. We see this in some of the other great sci-fi and fantasy movies of recent years, like The Matrix, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Dark City and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which I’ll write about someday): the sense that the art department was inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty, creating an imagined world that’s not just exceptionally detailed and beautiful, but genuinely original and unique.
Specifically, they’ve done one of my favorite things in speculative sci-fi, which is to infuse the aesthetic of the future with various aesthetics of the past. This is a whole realm of artistic possibility all too often ignored by movies set in the imagined future, which tend to restrict themselves to some combination magnifying the style of the present, and creating a new one far removed from the world we know. There’s plenty of that in Gattaca, to be sure; many of the sleek interior spaces and the (now rather charmingly) retro-futuristic technology are in the same vein as the ultra-advanced futures of Star Trek, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the 1972 Russian classic Solyaris. Here we must note the accomplishments of yet more unsung crew members: location manager Robert Earl Craft and his scouts and assistants, who managed to not just find, but wrangle permission to film at, some choice specimens of California architecture that fit perfectly into the movie’s elegantly streamlined world.
Yet even these advanced-future elements sometimes seem to be filtered through the aesthetics of the past. The Gattaca headquarters, for example, is played by Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1960 Marin County Civic Center, and to varying degrees, the other locations share a similar kind of postwar-futuristic vibe. And the world of the movie is filled out, so to speak, with a wonderful mash-up of past styles, like this future society has cherry-picked the aesthetic highlights of the 20th century. The interiors of leisure spaces, like lounges and concert halls, showcase the opulence of the Gilded Age; the clothing and hairstyles harken back to the glamorous 1940s and 50s; and while the cars are electric, everything else about them is straight out of the 60s, the decade when cars looked best. It’s all lovely to look at, and it also helps to deepen the overall impact of the movie; just like the cinematography, the production design captures both the great sophistication and the stifling rigidity of this imagined future in a beautifully unconventional way.
Something similar is going on with another element that I’ve rarely discussed before: the score, composed by Michael Nyman, which is not exactly what you’d expect in this sort of movie. I’m far too musically illiterate to analyze exactly how Nyman does it, but his music dovetails so well with the movie’s overall aesthetic that it’s easy to miss how unconventional it is for the genre. I don’t recall hearing any synthesizers, or many electronic tones of any kind—certainly none of the doomy, low-thrumming synths that the soundtracks of dystopian sci-fi thrillers are often built around. In keeping with the old-fashioned elegance of this world, Nyman sticks mostly to traditional analog instruments, most notably some beautifully resonant string arrangements, which also give the movie an undercurrent of melancholy that’s crucial to its emotional impact—it’s almost as if, even as the characters rarely express as much, the music is mourning the flawed but essential facets of human life that this society has stamped out in the name of progress. A perfect example is my favorite scene, when the adult Anton, now a detective, comes to the home of the Gattaca employee known as ‘Jerome Morrow,’ hoping to expose Vincent as an imposter; after his agonizing crawl up the stairs, the real Jerome, now known as Eugene, impersonates himself and foils Anton’s blood test. It’s one of the most conventionally thriller-like scenes in the movie, and Nyman’s music does add tension, but the oscillating strings also capture the essential weirdness of the situation, the underlying sadness, and the emotional turmoil beneath the composed facades of every character involved. It’s unconventional, but it dovetails perfectly with the movie’s larger aesthetic.
It all fits together because Niccol, takes a similar, subtly unconventional approach in his dual role as writer and director. Gattaca is a dystopian sci-fi thriller, and it holds our attention like one, but for a good chunk of its overall runtime, it moves away from the sort of storytelling that typically defines such movies. For one thing, the near-total absence of stunts is conspicuous enough to make you realize just how much contemporary sci-fi relies on action elements to keep us engaged. Here, many of what I call the ‘oh-shit’ moments, the surges of tension and the big reveals, are actually built around very simple things: an eyelash being sucked into a vacuum; the results of DNA tests popping up on a screen; Anton yelling, “Vincent!!” down a dark alley; a pair of contact lenses being surreptitiously removed; or a distinctive trinket placed on the hood of a car. Even the scenes of real physical peril, when you get down to it, simply raise the stakes on otherwise ordinary actions: swimming, running down an alley, crossing the street, or that house call of Anton’s, which consists, in the end, of a simple blood test. And then there’s the murder that he’s investigating, which seems set up to be a major focus of the plot, but then just as quickly recedes into the background; the victim is a character we never meet, and the story never feels primarily like one of a suspected murderer evading justice. Instead, Niccol folds the investigation into the larger narrative, using it not only to raise the stakes, but to give us a clearer sense of the way Vincent-as-Jerome lives in constant danger of being exposed, and to make more immediate the struggle he’s waging—both on a societal level, rebelling against the oppressive systems that restrict his prospects; and on a personal level, proving his worth to his genetically optimized brother. And despite the fact that the movie doesn’t unfold like a murder mystery, the investigation is still an essential part of it, both narratively and thematically; whatever his faults as a writer of dialogue, Niccol structures the story tightly and thoughtfully, ensuring that everything in it serves a clear purpose.
He also benefits from the efforts of his actors, who do a great deal to help sell this speculative, stylized world as a place that feels real to the people living in it. As is often the case, Ethan Hawke’s performance is, upon reflection, better than it initially appears. He can seem, at first, almost like a caricature of the obsessively driven, seductively brooding genius who often shows up in dystopian sci-fi, but after a while, Hawke lets us see how this persona is at least partly an act, making Vincent more sympathetic and lending credence to the idea of his transformation being so complete that the outside world sees no trace of his old self. Uma Thurman has less to do, but she lets just enough emotion sneak through her meticulously refined exterior to make her eventual change of heart seem plausible. Loren Dean, an actor I’ve never seen in anything else, is similarly effective as Anton, mixing flickers of doubt into his character’s air of ingrained confidence. And then there’s Jude Law (before he was famous!), who gives the movie’s best performance as the paralyzed Eugene, capturing the character’s understandable bitterness, his deepening investment in Vincent’s success, and his undiminished intelligence and wit—he’s the source of much of the humor that helps set Gattaca apart from most dystopian sci-fi. So too is Xander Berkeley as Lamar, the doctor who administers Gattaca’s DNA tests; it’s a small but important role, and with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes and a certain deadpan humor in his lines—bookended by two of the most decorous dick jokes in movie history—Berkeley conveys hints of a much gentler, more interesting guy behind the veneer of professionalism. Alan Arkin does something similar as Anton’s partner; as great a threat as he poses to Vincent, his canny instincts and blunt mannerisms carry a certain inevitable appeal amid the stifling refinement of Gattaca. And who better than Gore Vidal to embody the haughty entitlement of those who thrive in such exclusive spaces?
The point of all this is not to claim that the world of Gattaca is exceptionally realistic or believable. Which is fine; in fact, dystopian sci-fi that makes credibility its primary goal, trying to explain every conceivable plot hole and convince us that this absolutely could or will happen someday, tends not to work very well. And to be fair, I don’t think that’s really what the movie is going for; Niccol and his many collaborators, from the art department to the camera crew to the cast, choose instead to make full use of the creative freedom that speculative sci-fi allows—hence the beguiling aesthetic and the restrained storytelling. And they do it without sacrificing the one quality that really matters: whether or not this imagined future is strictly plausible, it is, in its own way, coherent—a world that adheres decently well to its own internal logic, and to which the characters respond in relatable ways.
And this, I think, is the main source of the Gattaca’s thematic resonance. Its immediate concerns about eugenics and genetic engineering were relevant in 1997 and are newly relevant today, and the movie posits a world that’s rather far-out, but coherent enough to make us think seriously about what a social order based on genetics might look like. But for me, it comes across even more powerfully as an indictment of institutionalized discrimination of any kind; the language used to enforce the genetic hierarchy echoes the language of oppression throughout history, and scenes like the one where a young Vincent is wordlessly intimidated out of a job interview by the prospect of a DNA test, bring to mind contemporary realities of unequal access to opportunity.
And more broadly, Gattaca is a forceful critique of any attempt to fully quantify human capability and potential. The message is ultimately hopeful: we may know more than ever about our genetic makeup, but we’re not slaves to it. Tellingly, almost every character goes against their genetic code in some way, and the results, good or bad, are always hugely consequential. There’s Vincent, obviously, overcoming his genetic limitations to realize his dream of going to space. Irene, the model of corporate conformity, turns out to be not just tolerant of, but actively attracted to someone who defies the system, and receptive to the idea that her own limitations might not be set in stone. Anton’s superior ‘helix’ leads to a level of overconfidence that nearly kills him, while his partner, older and more experienced but genetically relegated to subordinate status, turns out to be a better detective in pretty much every way. The director, who doesn’t have “a violent bone in [his] body,” turns out to be perfectly capable of cold-blooded murder. And Lamar, who was presumably hired for his genetic predisposition to do this job impeccably, is perfectly willing to bend the rules when he knows it’s right.
And then there’s Jerome, who doesn’t exactly go against his genetic code, but is still the movie’s best character. A lesser film would have made the arrangement between him and Vincent a major source of tension, with Jerome coming to resent Vincent using his genes to get ahead. But after bit of initial suspicion, that source of conflict melts away; the two men become good friends, and Jerome is soon just as committed to the deception as Vincent is. And he’s much more interesting as a result, exemplifying the problems with treating our DNA as the final word on who we are, and the dangers of organizing society around it. His genes place him at the tip-top of the privileged elite, but in a world that ranks people by their capabilities, his paralysis renders his perfect helix largely irrelevant. And even worse, we learn that this society is the reason he’s paralyzed in the first place; despondent over finishing second, and thereby not realizing his full genetic potential, he attempted suicide by stepping in front of a car. He could have been just another antagonist; instead, he’s a living, breathing reminder of the ways that discrimination hurts everybody in the end.[ii]
Whatever happens with genetic engineering, and whether or not future society adopts this retro-chic aesthetic, that message will continue to resonate.
© Harrison Swan, 2020
[i] They chose the all-time worst sci-fi movies as well, with interesting and amusing results: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/nasa-picks-best-worst-sci-fi-movies-what-are-yours-41527422/
[ii] Like last month, I wasn’t able to work in any of their words, but these reviews and articles were very helpful:
From Janet Maslin of the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/24/movies/film-review-the-next-bigotry-privilege-by-genetic-perfection.html
From Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997
And from Valerie Kalfrin: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997