***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law
written and directed by Andrew Niccol
by Walter Chaw No great surprise that the end of our last millennium coincided with a glut of reality-testing, existentially thorny speculative fictions--films that reflected a sudden Ludditism spawned by the looming Y2K disaster, a spate of scary school shootings, and a decade in cinema intent on paving the way for the CG phantasmagorias of the '00s. In ten years, go from the truth-telling, auburn celluloid lasso of sex, lies, and videotape (1989) to the truth-telling digital one of American Beauty (1999), with touchpoints in the appalling, historical-integrity-raping Forrest Gump and Titanic along the way. Of course we're asking ourselves if we've taken the virtuous path through the wood when all looks to be falling down around our ears. The prescience of Blade Runner and The Terminator become clearer, too, as the Eisenhower-era nostalgia fostered by Reagan's time in the White House reaps its harvest in the barely subsumed sex of Pleasantville (1995) and the god in the machine of The Truman Show (1998). Meanwhile, our viability as a species is questioned in solipsistic wonderlands like The Matrix (1999), Dark City (1998), and Michael Almereyda's wonderful Hamlet (2000), wherein noir anti-heroes are transformed into deities of their technology-sick societies. It even explains the black, awesomely unpleasant ending of Spielberg's A.I. and, fascinatingly, why A.I. is now enjoying a critical revision. How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise indeed in the key picture of this cycle, The Blair Witch Project; and how brilliantly Kiwi hyphenate Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) manages to craft as timely a picture as there could be about our regret and loathing of our wet-nurse technology, in addition to our dawning recognition, too late, that the birds have come home to roost.
Gattaca's world is sleek and chrome, all polished surfaces and empty gestures. With genetic predetermination the unquestioned high philosophy, society is broken down between those given every genetic advantage in utero and those who are the product of a "natural" birth: degenerites. It's a little bit Aldous Huxley, a little bit George Orwell in its tale of Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a "love child" with a heart murmur who dreams of being an astronaut. The problem is that in Niccol's future, the only résumé with cachet is the ol' double helix, and no matter Vincent's intelligence and drive, the only way he can infiltrate the space administration is by "borrowing" a better genetic code from freshly-crippled Eugene (Jude Law). How he does this is ingenious and fun to watch in the manner of an underdog sports flick married to a heist picture. (Tony Shalhoub plays the sleazy gene broker in one of his fast-talking shyster turns.) Muddying the stew is the murder of an administrator, bringing the attention of the authorities--including Vincent's genetically-engineered brother, Anton (Loren Dean)--on the eve of Vincent's escape into his childhood ambitions. A glutton for punishment, Vincent, in the meantime, falls in love with suspicious co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman).
What enthrals about Gattaca is its patience with its premise. Once established, it's undisturbed, and it ultimately wants nothing more than to argue that there's something in the human equation that can't be predicted by science. The great debate, the heaven of the mind and the hell of the body, is conceptualized as a moral conundrum. If, in the end, the picture isn't all that deep, its value might be that it has wisdom enough to allow empty spaces where personal philosophies can take root and thrive. Consider a late-film sequence in which Vincent's emancipation is intercut with Eugene's own flight from bondage (to Vincent, to his body, to his very existence) and the moment just beforehand when Eugene dons a second-place medal: testament to his failure despite his wealth of genetic gifts. It's a quiet moment that could be glossed without much loss of information, but taken with recurrent images of baptism and resurrection, there's something lovely about this idea that the path to salvation is littered with little disappointments. Gattaca's value also has something to do with the way that it offers insight, in précis, into the concerns infecting our society at the end of the Nineties; in some ineffable way, it predicts the way the world would change in 2001--and how our films would reflect that change.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Gattaca makes its Blu-ray debut in a superfluously-christened "Special Edition." (It's the only edition.) Full of gleaming, high-contrast tableaux best described as Edward Hopper-esque, the film was tailor-made for the HiDef environment, and indeed in comparison to the BD's 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, even the much-lauded Superbit DVD comes up substantially short. The image gains three-dimensionality while losing the garishness Gattaca's bold palette adopted in standard-def. My one quibble is that although Slawomir Idziak's cinematography favours crystal clarity, Sony has seen fit to garnish it with redundant traces of edge-enhancement; time to retire those analog mastering techniques once and for good, folks. Though downmixed by my hoary receiver, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track sounded really rich to these ears, with Michael Nyman's memorable score and the occasional rocket launch filling out the soundstage quite nicely. More meagrely supplemented than I anticipated, the disc features two new mini-docs--the retrospective "Welcome to Gattaca" (22 mins./1080p) and the edu-taining, Gore Vidal-narrated "Do Not Alter?" (15 mins./480i)--as well as vintage promotional filler (7 mins.), a funny "substance test" outtake (1 mins.), and six deleted scenes (11 mins. in toto).
Deafeningly absent from the looking-back are Andrew Niccol and Uma Thurman (and unfairly or not, the presence of people like the prop master and first A.D. give the impression they were scraping the barrel for talking heads), but Jude Law graciously puts in an appearance and a scraggly Ethan Hawke speaks wistfully about the film. Gattaca's legacy is a bit overstated--I'm not sure its fate as a teaching tool for genetics professors qualifies it as a cult film--and it seems overly optimistic to chalk up the picture's initial failure to premature topicality, yet the utter geekiness of the interviewees is finally endearing enough to forgive the piece's revisionist slant. As for the cloning featurette, it's predictably terrifying, if mainly for underscoring how much damage these pious idiots are doing in their crusade to bring stem-cell research to a halt. (Let's put all the fundies in wheelchairs and then solicit the religious right's opinion on the matter.) That said, perhaps you shouldn't lead the debate by promising a miracle cure for cirrhosis (as one English scientist does here), what with all the sanctimony liver disease tends to inspire. As for the elisions, nothing revelatory (and their 4:3 video quality is piss-poor), although I kind of enjoyed the preachy coda whose loss is lamented in "Welcome to Gattaca". Let it also be said that Ernest Borgnine's original send-off was mercifully cut. "Previews" for the BD edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Company (the mini-series), The Water Horse, "Damages" Season One, and Dragon Wars round out the disc, the first two cuing up on startup along with the usual "Coming to Blu-ray" promo. Originally published: March 27, 2008.