By Roger Ebert / October
What is genetic engineering, after all, but preemptive plastic
surgery? Make the child perfect in the test tube, and save money
later. Throw in perfect health, a high IQ and a long life-span,
and you have the brave new world of ``Gattaca,'' in which the bioformed
have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get
to be menial laborers.
This is one of the smartest and most provocative
of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas. Its hero is a
man who challenges the system. Vincent (Ethan
Hawke) was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests
show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy
of about 30 years. He is an ``In-Valid,'' and works as a cleaner
in a space center.
Vincent does not accept
his fate. He never has. As a child, he had swimming contests with
his brother Anton (Loren
Dean), who has all the right scores but needs to be saved from
drowning. Now Vincent dreams of becoming a crew member on an expedition
to one of the moons of Saturn. Using an illegal DNA broker, he
makes a deal with a man named Jerome (Jude
Law), who has the right genes but was paralyzed in an accident.
Jerome will provide him with blood, urine samples and an identity.
In a sense, they'll both go into space. ``Gattaca'' is the remarkable
debut of a writer-director from New Zealand, Andrew
Niccol, whose film is intelligent and thrilling--a tricky combination--and
also visually exciting. His most important set is a vast office
where genetically superior computer programmers come to work every
filing into their long rows of desks like the office
slaves in King
Vidor's ``The Crowd'' and Orson
Welles' ``The Trial.'' (Why are ``perfect'' human societies so
often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides
in our flaws?) Vincent, as ``Jerome,'' gets a job as a programmer,
supplies false genetic samples and becomes a finalist for the space
|The tension comes in two ways.
First, there's the danger that Vincent will be detected; the area
is swept daily, and even an eyelash can betray him. Second, there's
a murder; a director of the center, who questions the wisdom of
the upcoming shot, is found dead, and a detective (Alan
Arkin) starts combing the personnel for suspects. Will a computer
search sooner or later put together Vincent, the former janitor,
with ``Jerome,'' the new programmer? Vincent becomes friendly with
Thurman), who works in the center but has been passed over
for a space shot because of low scores in some areas. They are
attracted to one another, but romance in this world can be dangerous;
after kissing a man, a woman is likely to have his saliva swabbed
from her mouth so she can test his prospects. Other supporting
characters include Gore Vidal, as a mission supervisor, and Tony
Shalhoub as the broker (``You could go anywhere with this guy's
helix under your arm'').
Hawke is a good choice
for the lead, combining the restless dreams of a ``Godchild'' with
the plausible exterior of a lab baby. The best scenes involve his
relationship with the real Jerome, played by Law as smart, bitter,
and delighted to be sticking it to the system that has grounded
him. (He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but after all, as
the movie observes, you don't need to walk in space.) His drama
parallels Vincent's, because if either one is caught they'll both
go down together.
Science fiction in the movies has recently
specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals
with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes
crossed with fish, the science in ``Gattaca'' is theoretically
possible. When parents can order ``perfect'' babies, will they?
Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or
order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared
to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars?
That's how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children.
Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier
in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun? Will parents order
children who are rebellious, ungainly, eccentric, creative, or a
lot smarter than their parents are? There's a concert pianist in
``Gattaca'' who has 12 fingers. Don't you sometimes have the feeling
you were born just in time?
Detective Hugo: Alan
Director Josef: Gore Vidal
Written And Directed By Andrew
Niccol . Running Time: 112 Minutes. Rated PG-13 (For Brief
Violent Images, Language And Some Sexuality).