Gattaca (1997)

Another Netflix suggestion – I would love this movie because, after all, I loved 12 Monkey. Well, stinking suggestion engine, the only thing the two movies seem to have in common is a fondness for naked males, otherwise they couldn't be any farther from each other.

I had the first inkling of catastrophe when I read "Written and directed by Andrew Niccol". Movies written and directed by someone frequently have this crusading tone, and the mixture of crusade and science fiction is usually lethal.

That's exactly what's going on here. The movie, a mere ten years old, is already behind on most innovations, such that instead of being in the "not so distant future," it already looks antiquated. 

DNA fingerprinting and eugenics are the concern of the author. It seems there is support in Hollywood for this particular crusade, since the cast includes such famous and renowned do-gooders (and outstanding actors) as Uma Thurman and Jude Law in starring roles. Add to that Denny de Vito as producer and Alan Arkin and Gore Vidal in supporting roles – this is a project Hollywood appreciates.

What is it about? It's mostly about eugenics: the idea that you can look at a person's DNA and find the quality of the person from the DNA itself. You decide what kind of genetic 'crap' is in someone and bar them from certain professions based on that.

The hero of the story, Vincent, has bad genes. He has not been conceived through a process of genetic culling, but is a love child and has random genes. That's bad, because his dream is to go into space, which is reserved to people with good genes.

The technology of the "not so distant future" is kind of 1997, and so DNA fingerprinting is done with blood samples, saliva swabs, and hair or skin fragments. That's very convenient, because someone smart enough can simply take somebody else's samples and submit them as his or hers. Which is what Vincent does: he finds himself a nice young man (Jude Law) who has impeccable genes but is (in his own eyes) a failure and crippled and uses the guy's samples whenever he needs one.

He actually gets far along with this. The first one to find out there is something wrong is the director in the space agency – but he is conveniently dead the next morning. Next in line is a conveniently gorgeous woman (Uma Thurman) who will not say anything because she's fallen in love with Vincent (Ethan Hawke, she ended up having a relationship with him in real life).

In the end, the detective who is in charge of the director's murder case finds out about Vincent. It turns out it's Vincent's brother, Mr. Impeccable Genes, who is going to rat him out. That is, until Vincent proves his own superiority in a swimming contest.

 The story ends with Jude Law burning himself, Vincent flying to Titan, and me bored to death.

Don't get me wrong: I grew up in Germany, faced with "eugenics" all the time. Short, dark skin, bushy eyebrows: I was the picture of the sub-human. I can tell you story that still make my blood curdle, of things that people did to me just because they thought nobody would lift a finger (including me). I know what it means to be discriminated again and I have full sympathy for the story idea. Heck, enlist me in the crusade, and I'll raise the banner!

Gattaca, though, is a far cry from a good movie. The plot is too predictable, the future too antiquated, the dialog too blah. I guess having bought the Kool Aid of the premise makes you even more disappointed when you look at the treatment.

There still is a lot that can be salvaged from this rocket-wreck. The acting, though not spectacular, is worthy. Jude Law gets to do his crazed look all the time, which is not particularly exciting, but he's got a few good lines in there. Uma Thurman gets to do the quiet scientist, which is a welcome reprieve from the action hero she's going to be remembered for, and the supporting characters are charming (I particularly like the human touch of the doctor towards the end).

The sets are fantastic. A big chunk of the movie is shot in a set that takes its cues from Frank Lloyd Wright's infinitely beautiful Marin Civic Center, with is gorgeously curved atrium. Outdoor shots end up having that California look, including the kelp in the ocean that is such an important part of the struggle between the two brothers.

Ah, there is enough good in this movie to carry the day, after all. Too bad the director didn't go and look for a better writer: a better plot, and this movie would have been outstanding. 

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