Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Swim Back

I recently watched the movie, Gattaca, for the first time. Equal parts science fiction and detective story, the film came out in 1997, and it became one of those movies I “wanted to see, but never saw.” Years went by without me ever making the time to actually watch it, even though it was one of those movies that, judging by my fuzzy memories of its purported themes, would be the sort of movie I’d like. (Over time, it may have become unfavorably associated in my mind with the unappealing Halle Berry thriller with a similar name, Gothika, thus reducing the urgency to see the movie.)

Gattaca was recently made available for free on, and I almost thought someone was thinking of me, giving me the kick in the pants I needed. For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, especially those of you who, like me, were drawn to its previews and thematic sensibilities years ago, see it now. Don’t wait. It’s free, for God’s sakes!

The plot: The protagonist, Vincent, dreams of going to space, but he is thwarted by his genetic deficiencies. He lives in a world where science can engineer the genetic “quality” of every person before he is even born. Most children are thus the products of extensive gene manipulation by parents and doctors desperate to give their children a leg up. Vincent is an exception, and chance has given him a heart defect and a life expectancy of a mere 30 years. And while science allows you to give your child every possible advantage, the flip side is that the genetically “inferior” are forced to become the social underclass. After all, who would invest anything in someone who only has 30 years to live? Knowing this, Vincent makes desperate choices in order to con his way into space. Hijinks of the most believable sort ensue.

Gattaca is the sort of movie I hope to see every time I go to the theater, every time I pop in a new DVD, every time someone says, “Hey, you should watch such and such; you’d really like it.” The best movies (and best works of art, for that matter) leave a part of themselves in you, or rather, I think they show you something about yourself, and thus restore you to yourself.

What Gattaca restored in me was the belief that dreams are worth fighting for. Space is the only dream Vincent ever had, and he gives everything he is to his dream, even though it means defying the principles his society is founded on. He dares to believe that he can be more than the story told by his genes. To not try would be a capitulation to the injustice of his society.

Like the best science fiction, Gattaca is about ideas, not special effects. To me, the movie channeled the aesthetic of early science fiction, the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. In their books, the sci-fi elements were almost incidental to the ideas and evocation of human conflicts. Gattaca isn’t about space, nor is it even about a eugenics-mad dystopia. Genes and space are the mechanism for exploring the choices we face about whether we can be more than what others condemn us to.

The movie is elevated by some of the best actors in the business. Ethan Hawke, as Vincent, carries off emotions ranging from sarcastic to gentle to entreating to terrified, and above all, he owns the role of heroic dreamer. Uma Thurman plays his frosty on the outside, yearning on the inside love interest, Irene (though for Vincent, romance will prove to be an afterthought). Jude Law, in one of his first major roles, scorches the screen as Jerome.

I was moved as much by Michael Nyman’s extraordinary score as by the story itself. I think he one-ups even his fine and better known work in The Piano.

This was the first movie from writer and director, Andrew Niccol, who went on to direct Simone, and who also wrote The Truman Show. All three of these movies share sci-fi characteristics, generally involving Niccol’s pet theme of a protagonist pitted against a world that tries to constrain what he is capable of becoming.

Because of The Truman Show’s big budget and the involvement of megastar Jim Carrey, producer Scott Rudin (Zoolander, No Country for Old Men) reportedly could not entrust the project to a rook (Gattaca had not been made at that point). Veteran Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, Master and Commander) was brought in to helm the movie, and though I admire the work he did, I can’t help but wonder what Niccol would have done with his own script as director.

The most recent Niccol movie was Lord of War, a strictly non-sci-fi film that starred Nicolas Cage as an incorrigible arms dealer. With his typical care, Niccol takes a conventional genre thriller to a more thoughtful level than most viewers would expect from this material. Despite the radically different milieu, Lord of War plays to Niccol’s raison d’ĂȘtre: to glorify a man who wants to do one thing and who pursues it, no matter the cost.

I like Niccol’s later movies, but I think none of them has the emotional weight and technical completeness of Gattaca. In the spirit of the new year, I resolve to set aside old prejudices and give everything I am to my dreams.

No comments: