" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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In a world where children are genetically screened and filtered before birth, Vincent is born with no artificial genetic help from his parents. Which is too bad for him because he is born into a society where a job interview consists solely of evaluating your DNA.

Vincent’s parents decide to have another child — a boy, for Vincent. This time they get the help of a geneticist. So Vincent grows up weaker, shorter and less graceful than his younger brother Anton. If that weren’t enough, mom and dad treat the boys differently, as if Vincent might break from the same fall that Anton brushes off. Understandably, Vincent grows up wanting to get as far away from home — and from people — as possible, all the way to the moons of Jupiter.

Only one thing stands in his way — his DNA.

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) makes an arrangement with Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically superior person who had the bad luck to become paralyzed from the waist down in an accident. Vincent uses Jerome’s blood, urine, skin, and name to get the job that will send him away from Earth. Jerome gets room and board and a part of Vincent’s income.

When Vincent’s mission director is murdered, cops and FBI “hoovers” (referring to the cell-gathering vacuums and to J. Edgar Hoover) begin a close genetic scrutiny of all employees at Gattaca. A wayward eyelash of Vincent’s (not Jerome’s) is found and the cops believe they are close to finding the murderer.

It sounds a lot like a sci-fi thriller, but really Gattaca is more a human drama. The backdrop happens to be an Orwellian future, but the story itself is a simple tale of a man with a dream fighting against stereotypes.

I’m ambivalent about Gattaca.

On the one hand, It was wonderful. It was a somber, dark, quiet, human movie. The story was a noble struggle against an unfair oppressor, but it was handled with quiet determination, not violent intensity. The metaphoric details were relevant both to the story and to the underlying myth. For example, our hero’s last name is Freeman, his dream is to fly to the stars, and those who hold him back judge his ignoble birth, not his spirit.

The pacing was calm and unhurried. The lighting and production design was not literal but mood-setting: cars had fluorescent bulb-colored headlights, Vincent’s home was richly tinted blue, work was cold, stark and clean. Overall, it felt like a return to the womb. It really drew me in and made me want to stay. Gattaca started with a simple, beautiful idea, took a calm and dignified approach, and was capably and coherently given life. It could have been a superb movie.

On the other hand, several details were, not bad, but missed their mark.

When I attended film school, we called making use of narration an “NYU Save,” the joke being that if you failed to make a coherent movie, adding a narration would save it. (It also allowed us to make fun of another film school.) There is a lot of narration in Gattaca. It didn’t detract, but it made me wonder why the filmmakers thought so much of it was necessary. Perhaps if I weren’t privy to the film school joke, I wouldn’t have even noticed the narration. But it is a valid criticism in a medium that is supposed to show rather than tell.

Also, the movie’s setting says that genetic makeup might one day predetermine our lives. This is the adversity the hero must face. But it is a straw man adversity. The movie makes the point that a man is more than just his genes, but there’s little satisfaction in proving the point because nobody is seriously arguing otherwise.

Finally, and most importantly, many of the movie’s specifics were very obvious or very simple. For example, If you were in-valid (not genetically enhanced) the only job you could get was night janitor. Literally. The real killer is identified because she spat in her victim’s eye. Literally. These pieces almost felt as if they were included to make the story mythic, timeless, or metaphoric. But the rest of the movie was too specific to make a good myth, and so these literalized metaphors felt almost like a joke.

The story itself, “overcoming discrimination to achieve your goals,” suffers the same problems. It sounds timeless and mythic, taken out of context. But in a specific movie with a specific cast in a physical set, open-ended metaphor slips down into uninspired reality. That’s why I think Gattaca would make a better book than a movie. All the elements that, in the film seemed uninspired, would, with a reader’s imagination, be accepted more poetically.

I’m rooting for Gattaca to do well because I think it was an inspired attempt at timeless filmmaking (by a novice director, no less), but for me, it didn’t quite make it.

  • Gerard M. Palomo: I don't know if GATTACA did well at the box office, since I discovered it in DVD release. It is one of the best REAL science fiction movies I have ever seen. Watching it again in 2009, it is even more perfect and relevant. The idea that "no one" is arguing against the proposition that a person is more than his/her DNA, is parochial and naive:you don't hear the argument because we have accepted and internalized it. It is inherent inthe conceptof "race" and from "The BellCurve" to modern "sociobiology",the argument is alive and well.Another thing: this movie is a much-needed counterpoint to the overt totalitarian propaganda of mass-media programs like the "CSI" series, which "wink and nod" at profound violations of human dignity through the immoral (and often illegal) use of technological trickery to compel persons to testify against themselves in criminal cases. June 6, 2009 reply