Derek Winnert

Gattaca **** (1997, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law) – Classic Movie Review 226


It’s the near-distant future. Bookish hero Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) overcomes his physical frailties like his weak heart and poor eyesight by taking on the characteristics of a foreign superman Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) who’s been crippled in an accident. Freeman conceives his plan so that he can be among the special elite who get sent into space.


Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s eerie, oddball sci-fi piece smoothly and confidently gets by on its intriguing premise, strange futuristic atmosphere, other-worldly look and Michael Nyman’s poundingly repetitive, hypnotic score. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography and Jan Roelfs’s Oscar-nominated production designs are startlingly eye-catching, giving the film its great visual style and attractively unusual look.


For once, it’s not about the acting at all. The actors are really little more than cyphers in the film, with no one seemingly allowed to be animated enough to give a performance. In this respect, Uma Thurman comes off worst as Hawke’s love interest, Irene Cassini. Uma has simply to look attractive and bothered, both of which she does a lot of – and somehow looks too old and sophisticated for a still-boyish Hawke.


Gore Vidal and Alan Arkin try hard to stamp their idiosyncratic personalities on self-consciously conceived ‘character’ parts as the space director and an investigating detective. They, however, do have some sporadic success with it, with Arkin especially coming off really quite well. After all, Vidal isn’t really an actor! And there are roles for Ernest Borgnine, Elias Koteas, Tony Shalhoub and Blair Underwood. It’s a classy ensemble.


The film plays like a 90s remake of Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, an intelligent essay in claustrophobia and reflection on state-thwarted lives rather than going the route of being an exciting sci-fi action movie. In fact, there’s no action at all, and only marginal suspense occasionally. But the idea-filled Gattaca easily holds, even rivets, the attention and imagination anyway through its intelligence and oddness, as well as the power of the pseudo-homosexual relationships, which are unusually homoerotic and explicit for a mainstream film.


Not really a thriller at all, it’s all a bit cerebral. Maybe it should, but it never gets boring. Sci-fi fans will like, maybe even love, this exceptionally good-looking and fascinating production. Other viewers, especially anyone who doesn’t warn to Hawke’s odd screen persona, may find it a total turn-off.


Danny DeVito is one of the producers, with Michael Shamberg .

New Zealander Niccol went on to write The Truman Show, and write and direct Lord of War, In Time and The Host.

© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 226

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