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Movie review - "Gattaca"

November 05, 1997

Movie Review By Jason Myers

I recently finished reading "1984," by George Orwell, for English. Generally my mind goes into a deep numb whenever it digests information required for school. I have absentmindedly drifted over passages of textbooks and assigned novels, the snippets of knowledge filtering through me like bits of food spiraling down the drain in my sink.

But I read "1984" with an avid interest, caught up in Orwell's wicked sense of irony and paranoia that would be a precursor to everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Oliver Stone.

The new science fiction film "Gattaca" is essentially a postmodern revisioning of "1984" with an OJ twist. The proles in this movie are tracked not just by telescreens and a broding Big Brother, but by every speck of skin on their body. Characters in "Gattaca" creep about with overzealous caution, knowing that a fallen eyelash or a pin-prick of blood could prove incriminating evidence.

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Especially careful is Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), an inferior "God child" who has traded identities with a genetically perfected worker (Jude Law) in order to fulfill his dream of taking a space odyssey.

In the not-too-distant future, as the words at the beginning of the movie so ominously tell us, human beings are created not with carnal copulation, but isolated petrie trays.

A person's genetic composition, and subsequently all aspects of human nature, are preprogrammed in labs which take the sperm of a male, the egg of a female and works the technological voodoo that they do so well.

Because Vincent was born just a few years before all this genetic gerrymandering was possible, he is fated for the flaws of old-fashioned humanity, the cycle of life that apparently has not worked so well for the past billion years - because science only improves life, right? In turn, his only possibility for employment is to be a janitor at the Gattaca space agency, rather than an astronaut there.

Destiny smirks at him, however, when he encounters someone (the always amusing Tony Shalhoub) on the black market who agrees to switch Vincent's persona with Jerome Morrow (Law), who was crippled in an automobile accident. Things are looking up for Vincent, er, Jerome, when a murder takes place at Gattaca and this world of absolutes becomes not so absolute.

Further complicating his life is his romantic involvement with Irene (Uma Thurman), a co-worker who suspects his past is not as flawless as his assumed genes. Add a detective (Alan Arkin) who wants to know too much and one (Loren Dean) who really does know too much, and you have the intensity of an old-fashioned potboiler.

"Gattaca," however, is atypical in its pace and plot. It is softly lit and intimate, more a character-driven meditation on the malleability of men, to paraphrase "1984," than a hot-blooded nail-biter.

We never really are pale with suspense, and perhaps the movie could have moved a bit brisker, but not everything is meant to have daredevil velocity. Writer/Director Andrew Niccol infuses his film with a delicate sense of humanity and morality, and I would opt for it over dumb alien invasions any day.

I was completely absorbed by the flashbacks to Vincent's childhood - where normally this plot device functions simply for sickly sentimentality, the scenes in "Gattaca" are pointedly used to contrast a world still marked by glories from the past and one marred by sterilities in the future.

Also quite effective and moving are the scenes between Vincent and Jerome. Newcomer Law is deft at conveying the bitterness which accompanies so-called "perfection", and Hawke, always brilliant, exudes charisma and a wisp of sadness. Watching these two characters, the viewer gets the sense that beneath all the genetic engineering, they are essentially of the same breed.

Which is the point of "Gattaca" and "1984" after all.

The government or the scientific elite might be able to control surface details, but nobody has yet found a way to alter that part of human beings called a soul.

It is a testament to the quality of "Gattaca" that it can get across this message without making the viewer nauseous.

Like "1984," "Gattaca" is an elegant and intelligent cautionary tale that achieves its momentum in ideas rather than actions. Uma Thurman is a nice added feature.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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