July 8, 2005

Movie Review: Gattaca

My review contains significant plot spoilers, but only from the first act of the movie.

Daily, scientists discover more information about genetics, and with the still-recent completion of the human genome project, more and more is being learned about human genetics. High-level mammals have been successfully cloned, for commercial purposes. Animals have been genetically manipulated at the embryonic stage to enhance particular traits. It is really only a matter of time before human embryos are similarly manipulated – regardless of the significant ethical problems inherent in such endeavors. This thought-provoking movie explores some chillingly likely ramifications of this inevitable march of technology.

Gattaca is set in the “not-too-distant future,” when genetic manipulation of humans has become commonplace. Ethan Hawke is one of the few people born naturally, without the benefit of genetic manipulation prior to his conception because his parents, Elias Koteas and Jayne Brook, have moral reservations about tampering with the genes of their children. Society no longer discriminates against people on the basis of their race, but rather their genetic makeup. Babies’ genes are sampled immediately and analyzed at birth. Only the genetically superior are worth investing in, and thus society realigns itself, with the “God-children” having genetic flaws like imperfect teeth, myopia, or predispositions to obesity are relegated to the economic underclass.

Hawke’s character is diagnosed at birth with a weak heart and a short year life expectancy; he also has myopia. Although he is smart, good-looking, and has a driving ambition to become an astronaut and participate in extraterrestrial colonization, society has changed to the point that no one wants to invest significant resources and training in him because of the diagnosis.

The big theme of the movie is set out early in the first act, when "L.A. Law" alum Blair Underwood, playing a geneticist, "sells" the process of genetic selection to the skeptical parents. What parent does not want the very best for his or her child? What parent wouldn’t want to give whatever advantage they could to their children? If the parents could afford to, why wouldn’t they bless their children with perfect vision, perfect teeth, good looks, and a long, healthy life? So, the parents agree to genetic engineering for their second child, but they still have a “God-child” to raise.

In flashback scenes, the makeup is well-done to show aging in the actors playing the parents, and the parents convincingly convey the tension inherent in both loving their son and the frustration of knowing that he will probably die before them. The young actors who play Ethan Hawke’s character and his brother as children and as teenagers are also well-cast to look like younger versions of the young men on two divergent career tracks who they become. Along the way, pro-volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, and accomplished actor Ernest Borgnine have cameos; Borgnine’s role is a little more than a cameo and has interesting and memorable lines, but it is actually unremarkable to the plot.

To pursue his dream, Hawke hires a broker (a well-understated Tony Shalhoub) to hook him up with a member of the genetic “elite,” played by a sarcastic, sullen, and utterly convincing Jude Law. Shaloub teaches them how to use elaborate series of exercises to enable Hawke to pose as Law despite the pervasiveness of the use of genetic markers as identification, thus Hawke is able to penetrate the elite layers of society – in particular, finding work at a company engaged in the commercial colonization of one of Saturn’s moons, under the direction of Gore Vidal (for once not reeking of modern political progressivism) and staffed by (an again well-understated) Xander Berkeley. There, he meets and begins to romance Uma Thurman, and his career takes off. That is, until there is a murder, and detectives including an over-the-top Alan Arkin find one of Hawke’s real eyelashes and, discovering his genetic imperfection, incorrectly link him to the murder. This first act of the movie sets up the society, the setting, and the mood for the rest of the surprisingly tense movie.

Society as portrayed in Gattaca is recognizably American, and credible. Not all of our social, economic, or geopolitical problems have been solved in the future. Dress codes, hair styles, and other implements of life are recognizable but subtly different. The only incongruous part of the backdrop of the movie are the cars; while they add to the mood somehow, the styling of the futuristic cars along 1940’s and 1950’s lines is not really believable.

Most chilling about the movie is not the portrayal of the insidious and unintended effects of genetic engineering on society but rather the casual disregard all of the characters have for civil liberties. No one is in the least bit concerned about the invasion of their zones of personal privacy that a society which routinely scans their genetic codes and medical information – it is taken for granted that this information can be obtained and used not only by law enforcement but by corporate interests. As with the unremitting and unstoppable advance of genetic science, the disturbing process of transforming society to this is already underway, although not without criticism.

The movie is excellently-written, well-acted, and richly detailed. It was not a major box office success, perhaps because it was quite cerebral and morally ambiguous. Hawke’s character does not do what a standard Hollywood movie hero would have done in the situation, and while this is satisfying to me, perhaps this and the moral ambiguity caused the film to lose mass appeal. Or maybe it is the disturbing discussions which the movie will inspire, and the grim realization that perhaps the transformation of our current world into the one depicted in the movie is inevitable.

No comments: