Gattaca is a science fiction triptych character study by way of film noir. And while the film’s a murder mystery, it only uses the film noir device—narration—for a non-mystery section of the film. The narration ends with the murder mystery, not coming back until the finale. It’s an absolutely fantastic structure from writer and director Niccol, who’ll then lean into the character study elements, sometimes employing noirish visuals but always slightly not.
But Gattaca doesn’t take place in a dangerous world, and noir’s all about danger.
The film takes place in the near future when parents-to-be go to their location geneticist, and they pick out the best egg to grow into a baby. The film actually doesn’t get into whether or not the mother carries the baby at all, but it seems like maybe not. Not important. The film takes place in the future, where the next pandemic kills off all the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, and the rich liberals need to figure out what to do about the icky poors.
Ethan Hawke is a “God-child;” his parents left his genetics up to fate, and fate delivered them someone with a bad heart, among other ailments. We find out Hawke’s origins in the summary flashback, which he narrates. It starts a few minutes into the film, five or seven minutes; the film opens with Hawke scrubbing loose skin from his body and being a neat freak, shows him getting tested at work, then the flashback to explain he’s not like everyone else at the Gattaca installation; additionally, because he’s pretending to be someone else.
The Gattaca installation is a future NASA, where the best of the best prepare to explore the galaxy—or at least the solar system—and the even better best get to actually go on the missions. It’s finally Hawke’s turn, boss Gore Vidal tells him; one more week. The week will be the present action for most of the film but first is the thirty-plus minute flashback establishing Hawke and the future.
A murder kicks off the flashback, but that murder’s got nothing to do with the material it covers. Niccol lucks out at Hawke’s ability to narrate and make his character more sympathetic—he comes off like a prick in the pre-flashback setup, just another prig in a world of them—just through his vocal performance. The film traces his childhood, as mom Jayne Brook wants the best for her son, and dad Elias Koteas just wants a better son next time. Then the younger brother excels because he’s got the right genes, and how even mom gives up on young Hawke. It’s devastating, especially since Hawke—narrating from the future—doesn’t remark on the obvious psychological turmoil.
He runs away from home as a teenager, and in the next scene in the flashback montage is Hawke, now a custodian at the Gattaca installation. Since he was a kid, he’s been a space junkie, and everyone thought cleaning the spaceships would be the closest he ever would get, but he’s got a plan. Just because you’ve got perfect genes doesn’t mean you might not get hit by a car or fall down the wrong stairs, and then what can you do. Tony Shalhoub brokers a deal for Hawke to assume partially paralyzed Jude Law’s identity, which requires lots of cosmetic and mental work; in exchange, Hawke supports Law. Presumably, Gattaca pays well. They never talk about money in the future. Maybe there isn’t any.
The flashback changes speed throughout, emphasizing teenaged Hawke’s adversarial relationship with his brother (Chad Christ and William Lee Scott play the teenage versions, respectively), then also Hawke and Law’s initially testy relationship. In addition to being a depressed drunk, Law thinks Hawke’s genetically inferior and resents having to be in this arrangement. Especially since it means sobering up (at least occasionally).
As the flashback gets closer to the present, Hawke explains he’s running out of time with his heart defect—they can predict when your body’s going to give out with 99% surety, and he’s passed due—and the only thing impeding his space dream is this one crappy mission director at work.
Who turns out to be the murder victim.
And Hawke carelessly left an eyelash near the scene. His eyelash; not one of the ones Law plucks for him to plant.
The film runs 106 minutes, so the next seventy minutes (minus credits) take place over the few days before Hawke’s mission is scheduled to depart. The police show up at work, initially led by old school detective Alan Arkin, who’s convinced the eyelash guy must be the killer—one of the other things they screen out in the eugenics is the propensity for violence and criminal behavior—so Hawke’s got to stay on his toes.
Simultaneously, his coworker Uma Thurman starts getting interested in him romantically, but in Gattaca, romantic interest comes after running a potential partner’s genetic code. Thurman’s good enough for Gattaca in the brains department, but she’s not going to get a shuttle mission because she’s got a bum heart; sometimes, even with the eugenics, things still go wrong with the science.
Back at home, Law’s preparing for a year without an identity—Hawke’s leaving the planet; he can’t be in two places at once, which means Law can’t be anywhere.
Then there’s Loren Dean’s genetically superior police commander, who thinks presumably regular guy Arkin’s investigating the wrong leads, but Arkin thinks Dean’s all genes and no gut. The murder investigation gives the film a different, contentious structure running through the already established one-week-to-lift-off structure. It throws a wrench in Hawke and Law’s plans, but they need to adjust around it. Similarly, Thurman’s last-minute romantic interest in Hawke further complicates things.
The film gradually becomes that triptych character study: Hawke, Thurman, Law. Maybe Dean sharing some of the third spot with Law. The script mixes drama—family drama, as Hawke and Law have become the brothers neither had—romance, the general hard sci-fi of future eugenics and spaceflight, and murder mystery. Niccol’s script is phenomenal.
Along with that already considerable success is Niccol’s breathtaking direction. Gattaca’s a muted future, filled with people genetically engineered not to be impressed with the wonders around them. Niccol and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak shoot it clear but saturated with color. Then there’s the Michael Nyman score, which tracks the emotions of Hawke and the other actors throughout. The colors and the music mix and mingle, creating an encompassing backdrop for the actors’ performances.
Niccol does a great job with the actors. Hawke, Law, Thurman, Dean. Arkin’s kind of an extended cameo, along with Xander Berkeley, Ernest Borgnine, and Shalhoub. Everything about Gattaca—except Nyman’s score—is controlled or constrained. The music soars with the possibility of breaking free, and when characters actually get to do it too, Niccol scales appropriately.
Gattaca’s an exceptional film.