“They say every atom in our bodies was once a part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving; maybe I’m going home.”

I was chatting to a friend the other day about the 1990s and film. We decided that, cinematically, the nineties didn’t really know what they were. The sixties had spy films, the seventies had hard edged cop films, the eighties had intense action films and John Hughes…but the nineties? Hard to say. One thing I do know about the nineties is that there were some damn good films released in the decade.

Gattaca (1997), starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, is one such film. It raises questions about the ethics of eugenics and selective breeding through IVF, and the effect of those things on human perceptions of fate, determinism and free will. Upon its release, this film garnered a positive reception from critics and has an 82% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is usually indicative of a rather good film. However, it made only a third of its USD36million budget back, which is a tragedy because the film is just so excellent.

Rather than write my own plot summary – as I am increasingly aware of a distinct inability on my part to sum up a plot succinctly – I have enhanced slightly a passage by Bhob Stewart of Rovi.

Gattaca is a science fiction drama, set in a future when one’s life is determined by genetic engineering rather than education or experience. The wealthy can choose the genetic makeup of their descendants. People are designed to fit into whatever role is decided for them before birth. But what happens when someone desires another way of life? Citizens in this impersonal future-world are fashioned as perfect specimens, so those in the natural-born minority are viewed as inferior to the pre-planned perfect “Valid” specimens who dominate. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a natural-born “In-Valid”, has several diagnosed defects (including poor vision, possible emotional problems, and short 30-year life expectancy), but he also develops a different outlook on his pre-ordained fate. He yearns to break free from society’s constraints, and he dreams of a journey into space as a Gattaca space astronaut-navigator. To accomplish his goal, he enlists the aid of DNA broker German (Tony Shalhoub) and makes contact with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), who was paralysed in an accident and is willing to sell his superior genetic materials. Vincent assumes Jerome’s identity and is scheduled for a flying mission. However, a week before his flight, a Gattaca mission director is murdered, and all members of the program are suspects. Meanwhile, he develops a romantic interest in a beautiful Valid, Irene (Uma Thurman), prevented from going into space because of a heart defect. Tracked by a relentless investigator who is methodically jigsawing all the pieces together, Jerome finds his aspirations dissolving into stardust.

Thank you for your help, Bhob.

The star, being cool.

We studied Gattaca when I was in year nine – 2006, what a year. Strangely, that didn’t sour my appreciation of it, and indeed I have found it’s been even better on repeat viewings. Its great appeal is that there is something for everyone here. There’s a very solid plot, with some excellent nail-biting moments; some wonderful performances from the leads, and some small but effective bit-parts from familiar faces, including the late Ernest Borgnine. Not only this, there are also a number of very touching and increasingly relevant meanings to the film.

As mentioned previously, there is a very strong focus on the effect of ‘playing God.’ The premise of Gattaca is that scientists can manipulate embryos in test tubes to create magnificent human specimens that basically have their entire destinies mapped out before them. Jerome Morrow was destined to be a gold medal winning swimmer, but in the end only managed silver. His paralysis from a car accident, as the plot thickens, was no accident. These supposedly guaranteed Amazing Humans serve to raise expectations until it becomes impossible for those humans to accept anything less than total success in their chosen career. As we see with Jerome, this is far from all it’s cracked up to be. It should be noted that the film doesn’t openly condemn the practise of IVF, but it does go a long way to urge caution about the rapid development of IVF technology and research.  Sensibly, Gattaca leaves the argument about IVF to the viewers, but it all raises questions about what might (read: will) happen if designer babies ever become a “thing”.

Interestingly, of all the euphemisms in the film used to describe in-valids, Irene’s jumps out at you. Upon Vincent revealing his true identity, she asks him, “You’re a God child?” It seems that even in this future (dystopia? Maybe…), they still haven’t managed to shake the unshakeable idea of religion.

The emphasis on fate and determinism in Gattaca is, to me, the key theme of the film. Vincent, despite his social status and the lack of hope amongst his in-valid peers, refuses to be stopped. This is a guy who may have been dealt a bad hand of health, but he has the brains to get to Gattaca. Despite the fact that his methods are totally illegal, and in the world of the film amount to cheating – “You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix under your arm, ” says German – we cannot help but back Vincent to the hilt. In our world as the audience, we are all capable of getting anywhere based on merit and hard work – but what if we were suddenly dropped into the world of Gattaca? We’d all be Vincent. That’s the crux of this film, and what makes it so effective – no matter how smart we are or how far we can run, nobody’s perfect.

This film is built on character – if we don’t like the leads, a film like this has nothing. Ethan Hawke as Vincent is a very good fit, if a little irritating. He develops from a worrisome whinger into a very confident man, who by the end realises that he is not alone in his idealism. Uma Thurman as Irene is one of the most charming female leads I have seen in film, and it is a shame she has somewhat dropped off the radar in recent years. The emotion and restraint she lends her role here make her a better character than Vincent, and the intentionally slower development of her character means the mysterious air Thurman brings to her performances functions extremely well here.

However, the one role that stands out amongst the rest is Jude Law, as the real Jerome. He seems a gleeful as Vincent to be taking on the system that has made him an outcast, but his rough, ‘ladsy’ exterior belies an inner depression and anger at the world. Law turns on the charm and smoothness for this role, and it fits him well. It’s no wonder he went on to star in the roles that he has.

Arguably this film’s two greatest assets.

If there is one thing the 1990s did well in film, it was style. Gattaca is, without a doubt, one of the sexiest films I have ever seen. The costume has a very 1950s/1960s look to it, and the men almost always are impeccably turned out in well fitting suits, often double breasted as was fashionable at the time, but with narrower cuts unlike what was fashionable at the time, lending a more retro air. The women are dressed in severe skirt suits that command authority. The Gattaca space centre is awash with dark, muted tones of grey, black and navy, and it looks good. Despite his paralysis, Law is one of the most sharply dressed characters, symbolising his unwillingness to be held back.  The detectives in the film wear long macintoshes and fedoras in an obvious nod to film noir, like so much of the other design in Gattaca. The retro futuristic appeal of the visuals continue with the space centre.

Marin County Civic Centre (Gattaca HQ.)

The film uses Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Centre for the Gattaca HQ, and the apartment complex in which Vincent and Jerome reside is portrayed by California State Polytechnic’s CLA Building. The cars are supposedly battery powered and yet resemble classic 1960s designs such as the Rover P6. To quote Wikipedia, the film is “a notable example of tech noir.” Indeed, some shots are practically sepia. It’s great.

One such shot.

Gattaca continues to become more and more relevant as the days go by. Leaps and bounds are being made in the field of genetics, and it is already possible to detect in embryos the onset of debilitating conditions and diseases. From the moment the film begins, you can’t help but hope we don’t end up in that world. With brilliant visuals, snappy dialogue and a beautiful, minimalistic score by Michael Nyman, Gattaca is one of the great films of the 1990s.