Oct. 26 2011 12:00 AM

‘Gattaca’: Looking back at a vision of the future


New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew
Niccol built his career on thoughtful dramas with science-fiction
elements, such as Jim Carrey’s “The Truman Show,” in
which a man spends his entire life on TV (when the movie was released
in 1998, reality-television had yet to become omnipresent), or “S1m0ne,”
which involves a director (Al Pacino) who uses digital technology to
create a superstar beauty to replace a temperamental star (Winona

This week, Niccol returns to familiar ground with “In
Time,” a thriller set in a future society that caters almost
exclusively to the wealthy, who can purchase immortality; the aging
gene freezes up around age 25, allowing those who can afford it to
extend their youth indefinitely. The film stars Justin Timberlake,
Amanda Seyfried, Alex Pettyfer, Cillian Murphy and Olivia Wilde.

The release of “In Time” is a perfect opportunity to look
back on Niccol’s debut film, 1997’s “Gattaca,” which starred Ethan
Hawke, Uma Thurman and a then barely known actor named Jude Law.
Although the film was not a commercial success at the time, it has
since found an international  following.
(A few years ago, I was stunned to find my favorable “Gattaca” review
had been translated into German by the owner of a “Gattaca” fansite.)

Like “In Time,” “Gattaca” envisions a world in which
health and yourthfulness are prized above everything else. The proper
genetic make-up determines your destiny, and parents are willing to pay
plenty for designer genes to ensure that their children live long,
active and comfortable lives.

Those unlucky enough to be "natural births" — such as
Hawke’s character, Vincent, the product of his parents’ romantic
getaway on what’s known as "the Detroit Riveria" — run the risk of
being labelled "in-valid," a title that guarantees a career in cleaning
up after the prized and privileged. While Vincent dreams of being an
astronaut, he was born with impaired vision and a 99 percent chance of
heart disease; his father, who has a clear vision of what life holds in
store for Vincent, warns him that "the only way you’ll see the inside
of a spaceship is if you’re cleaning it."

So Vincent infiltrates Gattaca, the training ground for
astronauts, by passing as a "valid" — thanks to blood, urine, skin cell
samples and hair clippings provided by Jerome (Law), a genetic marvel
who was paralyzed in an accident. Ultimately, Vincent’s masquerade will
be jeopardized by a murder investigation and by his growing attraction
to Irene (Thurman), a Gattaca staffer whose stunning beauty conceals
inner weakness.

While technology has marched ahead — instant DNA analysis
makes life much easier for police officers seeking suspects and
employers eager to know everything about workers — fashion has gone
back to the Camelot years, which gives the picture a memorable look
that’s simultaneously Tomorrowland and yesteryear. It’s also fun to see
the assortment of talent Niccol had in his cast: Where else will you
see novelist Gore Vidal, Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine and then-rising
stars Maya Rudolph and William Lee Scott? 

Entertaining, suspenseful and even touching, “Gattaca”
remains a fascinating, thought-provoking piece. It’s interesting to
recall that Hawke and Thurman met on the set and married the following
year; sadly, the marriage did not last — yet the cult status of
“Gattaca” has endured.