Gattaca: Andrew Niccol’s SF masterpiece

With Good Kill in UK cinemas this week, Ryan looks back at writer-director Andrew Niccol’s classic sci-fi debut, 1997's Gattaca...

It’s all there in that swooning opening music: Gattaca isn’t just another sleek film about the future. The feature debut of New Zealand-born director Andrew Niccol, the smart, elegant, intensely moving Gattaca may just be his finest film to date.

The film introduces Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), who’s in the process of a carrying out a painstaking daily ritual: shaving every stray hair from his body, exfoliating his skin and burning the material left behind – it’s as though Vincent’s treating himself as a crime scene.

Vincent lives in a future where genetic profiling has divided society into Valids – those whose DNA has been fettled to perfection by scientists before birth – and In-valids – those conceived naturally, with all potential genetic flaws it involves. Where Valids have the pick of the best jobs, In-valids have been relegated to menial tasks like cleaning offices.

Uniquely, Vincent has a window into both worlds; born an In-valid, he seemed doomed to a miserable life from birth. Yet his passion for science gives him a determination to succeed, even if it means breaking the law to land his dream job at Gattaca – a space agency run by Director Josef (Gore Vidal).

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To this end, Vincent becomes what’s referred to as a “Borrowed Ladder” – he assumes the genetic identity of one Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a Valid left paralysed after a car accident. Each day before work, Vincent therefore scrubs his own telltale DNA from the loose skin and hair on his body, before heading to the office with samples of Jerome’s blood, hair and urine.

Despite frequent DNA checks by both machines and doctors like Xander Berkeley’s Doctor Lamar, Vincent ingeniously avoids scrutiny, passes himself off as the genetically perfect Jerome, and looks set to fulfil his dream of becoming a part of an imminent trip to one of Saturn’s moons. That is, until a murder incident at Gattaca attracts the attention of a very suspicious Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin), and Vincent seems to be constantly on the cusp of being found out… 

Still an unknown quantity in Hollywood, Andrew Niccol was given around $36m to realise his near-future world, and his use of that relatively slim wedge of cash is almost as ingenious as Vincent’s means of concealing his identity. Rather than hire big name cinematographers, composers, and editors from Hollywood, Niccol selected an eclectic bunch of personnel from the art-house world. Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak was best known at the time for his work on Kieslovski films like A Short Film About Killing or Three Colours: Blue. British composer Michael Nyman had previously worked many times with arthouse filmmaker Peter Greenaway. American editor Lisa Zeno Churgin cut together Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (also starring Ethan Hawke).

All of this means that, while Gattaca has the trappings of a sci-fi thriller, it has the dignified tone and pace of a period drama. Niccol’s brave casting choices underline the thoughtful nature of his writing and production; Ethan Hawke was still in his 20s at the time, clearly an actor with talent but by no means a star, while Jude Law had never made a movie in America before. Gattacas biggest name, at least at the time, was Uma Thurman, who plays the enigmatic Gattaca worker Irene, while the unusual, witty casting of actors like Alan Arkin, Ernest Borgnine and novelist Gore Vidal (who gives a puckish turn here) are cast for their acting chops rather than their ability to sell cinema tickets. 

That casting is, for the most part, inspired. Hawke effortlessly sells what is essentially a dual role – the earlier, scruffy Vincent with the heart defect and glasses, and the polished, perfect Jerome, who’s deemed worthy to sit before the scarily uniform desks at Gattaca. In a world where everyone seems as cold and restrained as the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, Hawke’s a mask of composure, only occasionally letting occasional glimpses of unvarnished humanity slip.

By contrast, the genetically pristine Jerome is an embittered, hard-drinking malcontent, and it’s a stunning performance from Jude Law. Initially hostile towards Vincent, Jerome gradually reveals more of himself as the film goes on – there’s a vulnerability beneath his cockiness and anger that, by Gattacas final reel, becomes almost heartbreaking.

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The way Niccol depicts the scenes between Vincent and Jerome, as they collude in maintaining Vincent’s false identity, recall David Cronenberg’s 1988 drama, Dead Ringers. While Vincent aren’t identical twins, like the characters played by Jeremy Irons in that earlier film, there’s a sense that they’re two separate souls coming together to create one person. As Jerome later tells Vincent, “I got the better end of the bargain. I gave you my body. You gave me your dream.” 

Dead Ringers sense of longing and, as Cronenberg once put it, “unrequited life” hangs thickly over Gattaca. You can hear it in Michael Nyman’s incredible, timeless score, which rises and falls with aching sadness. And you can see it in those performances. Vincent and Jerome fit into the pantheon of outsider protagonists in sci-fi dystopias – Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bernard Marx in Brave New World. They’re our reference point – a means of entry into an unfamiliar world.

In terms of writing and directing, Gattaca’s a spectacular debut from Niccol. He sketches in his future America rather than obsessing over every technological detail, and makes his medium budget a feature rather than a drawback. His spare, retro-future style – all re-fitted ’60s cars and ’50s Californian buildings – adds to the film’s atmosphere of quiet control. The uncluttered production design (courtesy of Jan Roelfs, another Greenaway alum) gives room for Niccol’s characters, writing and themes to breathe.

Made at a time when genetic research was often in the headlines, Gattaca effectively explores what might happen if society opened the door to a new form of eugenics. The result is a society of haves and have-nots, where a simple blood test can consign a human being to the scrap heap. As in Niccol’s later films like In Time (which bears several similarities in look and tone to Gattaca) and the drama Lord Of War, there’s a palpable sense of injustice in his writing. Gattaca acknowledges the benefits of genetic manipulation – what parent wouldn’t want their child to be healthy? – while also convincingly relating its darker implications. How will it change the way we treat each other, or even regard ourselves? 

Our genes may play a part in our fate, but can’t our strength of character and will also play a part? The major difference between Vincent and his genetically perfect younger brother Anton (Loren Dean), we learn, is that Vincent’s very imperfections have given him an innate stubbornness, a determination to succeed no matter what the cost. To quote a revelatory key line, “I never saved anything for the swim back…”

There’s a sense too that Niccol didn’t hold back when he made Gattaca. It’s made with an intelligence and passion that’s rare in relatively mainstream science fiction movies. It satisfies as a thriller, a piece of speculative fiction, and above all an unusually humane drama about passion and ambition – and what it does to us when they’re snatched away.

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Disappointingly, Gattaca struggled to make an impact in cinemas on its first release. Ethan Hawke later suggested that the boss at Columbia Pictures didn’t particularly care for the film, and that its marketing was ineffectively handled as a result. Whatever the reason, Gattaca failed to make back much more than a third of its $36.5m investment on its initial theatrical run. 

Yet Gattaca is, I’d argue, akin to Blade Runner, in that it’s an overlooked science fiction film that improves with time. Hawke himself certainly thinks so. In a 2010 interview with Time, he suggested that, not only is it a film that will continue to find an audience, but it’s also the kind of science fiction movie we haven’t seen from a Hollywood studio since.

“When I was doing the film, I really felt very strongly that this is a film that will last,” Hawke said. “Ultimately, I think it was a really high-budget art film. More and more, there’s no place for that, and it’s a travesty. I feel like we’ve lost room in the movie theater for a whole genre of pictures. They can’t make it anymore.”

One year after Gattaca, Niccol became hot Hollywood property when The Truman Show was nominated for four Academy Awards – including one nomination for Niccol’s screenplay. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the films been reversed, with The Truman Show – a film once set to be Niccol’s debut, before the more experienced director Peter Weir got the gig instead – coming out in 1997 and Gattaca appearing in 1998. Would The Truman Shows critical and financial success have given Columbia the faith to give Gattaca more of a push?

We’ll never know. But while Gattaca didn’t do the business of splashier ’90s genre fare like Independence Day or Armageddon, it remains one of the best science fiction films of that decade – and, for this writer, Andrew Niccol’s unrivalled masterpiece. It’s all there in that swooning opening music.