Sci Fi: Post Podcast Homework

What if the moment you were born, it was known what you would die of, and how old you would be?


That fascinating premise lies at the core of writer/director Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca – my selection for this week’s podcast “homework” viewing. Now twenty years old, this modestly budgeted, massively underrated science fiction gem feels alarmingly prescient, especially in an age where designer babies and associated genetic engineering moral minefields are a hot button topic.


Set in a future where a genetic class system divides those engineered in a test tube and those conceived via good old fashioned bonking, genetically “inferior” Vincent (Ethan Hawke) longs to be an astronaut. He comes to an agreement with genetically engineered (and therefore“superior”) Jerome (Jude Law), now wheelchair bound as the result of an accident, to steal his identity and join the space programme. Obstacles are thrown in Vincent’s path in the form of Irene (Uma Thurman), who suspects he is not what he seems. Matters get even more complicated when one of Vincent’s colleagues is murdered and the police start to collect genetic samples.


One of the film’s great strengths is showing the sheer lengths Vincent has to go to in order to maintain his deception. For example, he cannot leave his true DNA lying around at work, so every morning he ritualistically scrapes off all dead skin cells. He makes sure his desk is kept clear of even a stray hair. At the same time, he uses urine samples from Jerome whenever tests are required at work. This exhausting minutiae becomes even more demanding during the police investigation, for instance in one tense sequence in a gym wherein Vincent’s chest has been rigged to give false heartbeat readings.


What makes Gattaca so brilliant, aside from sterling performances, a superb script and fine direction, is the compassionately handled, thought provoking subject matter. On a political level, this is a warning about the dangers of where we might be headed if a genetically based class system were to come into being. In one scene cut from the film (check out the deleted scenes section on the DVD), a policeman even lists all the famous individuals - including the likes of Einstein - that would never have been allowed to work in their chosen fields under their genetically based social order.


Yet this isn’t simply another dystopian future about man playing God and creating an obviously abhorrent regime. At a deeper level, this concerns rejecting notions of what we are and aren’t capable of. In flashback sequences, we see the relationship between Vincent and his supposedly genetically superior brother. Vincent manages to beat him at swimming in a key sequence – something that should not be possible. This underlines his determination not to be judged on the basis of genetics.


The finale (which obviously I won’t spoil) involves a doctor played Xander Berkeley (well known for TV series such as 24), who crops up on a regular basis throughout the film. His profound relevance finally becomes clear in the closing moments, providing a neat coda to this smart, provocative and moving mini masterpiece. Gattaca has been neglected for far too long, so do check it out.


Samantha Stephen