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An Understated Masterpiece You’ve Probably Never Seen

  • Film: Gattaca
  • Reviewed By: Joseph Breslin
  • Content Warning: Language, Sexuality, Violence
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • Age Recommendation: 16+

“They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.” So muses Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), whose status as a “God child” with a one percent chance of living past thirty ought to have prevented him from pursuing greatness. Set in a believable near-future where nearly every new human life has been planned down to the genes, Gattaca chronicles the early career of a man who refused to submit to that world’s predestinarian yolk. Gattaca’s star-studded cast and incredible set design, its melancholy score and memorable dialogue, make it one of the best science fiction films you’ve probably never seen.

Vincent Freeman is the firstborn child of a middle-class family who made the “mistake” of leaving his conception up to chance. A rosary hangs from a rearview mirror as Vincent details his origin story and his parents’ growing realization that their unaugmented child will never amount to much in this brave new world. “From a young age, I learned to see myself as others saw me,” says Vincent, recalling his gradual slide into the shadow of his genetically superior younger brother, a boy deemed worthy of his father’s name. After Vincent leaves home to pursue his dreams of going to space, he struggles to earn his place through great effort and diligent study, only to come up against the wall of “genoism,” a form of discrimination so deeply embedded that its illegality in principle cannot be prevented in practice. How can the dignity of every human life be acknowledged, let alone enforced by law, when even normal, day-to-day activities leave copious evidence of one’s genetic profile? In the actuarial morality of this world, some lives are more valuable than others. So it is that having attempted every legitimate means of success through hard work, Vincent finally resorts to the unthinkable: he becomes a “borrowed ladder.”

The “ladder” in question is the double-helix of a man whose genome is ninety-three percent pure. Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a former elite swimmer crippled in a car accident, agrees to trade Vincent his biological profile in exchange for a cut of his salary and, perhaps, a shadow of that worldly success that must forever elude him. Through a meticulous daily process that requires constant vigilance on both of their parts, Vincent now works at Gattaca as one of the mission specialists for an upcoming launch to Titan. There he meets Irene, played by Uma Thurman (Hawke’s future wife in real life). Irene at first suspects Vincent of a crime, but gradually she finds herself attracted, under the spell of the mystery she sees in him. She begins to fall in love, despite her misgivings. The obvious murder of a Gattaca administrator who opposed the mission to Titan, the police’s reflexive assumption that the murderer simply must be the same unregistered “in-valid” whose DNA was found on the premises, and Vincent’s own clear motive for offing the man, combine to create a sense of pins-and-needles tension. We the viewers don’t want Vincent to be suspected as the in-valid in question, but we’re also not sure he’s innocent of the crime. Alan Arkin plays an old-fashioned fedora-wearing gumshoe whose instincts and methods are certain to expose the killer, while Arkin’s superior thwarts him at every turn, pursuing an agenda that will soon become clear.    

Upon re-watching Gattaca, this reviewer was struck by the many small details that make it excellent. The sets feel near-contemporary rather than obviously futuristic while the costumes combine clean, modern lines with retro touches that call back to old detective films. This is a future in which Bogart and Bacall would feel at home. The contrasting cleanliness and grittiness not only support the contrasting social realities of the two genetic classes but also make this world timeless.The simple but haunting score lends the film a mourning, nostalgic atmosphere tinged with hope, which reinforces its theme. While many science-fiction films proffer a world so changed as to seem magical, Gattaca’s world is recognizably our own. Yet in film, as in prose, technical achievements ring hollow without solid characterization, rich dialogue, and a tight plot, all of which are present here.

Hawke, Thurman, and Law give fantastic lead performances, but so do Gattaca’s many recognizable supporting players. The plot, though straightforward, still delivers plenty of tension and a few satisfying twists. As in all good literature, the film is loaded with poignant dialogue and little ironies. Many of Gattaca’s best moments transcend their immediate application in the story and offer timeless insights, yet the film never sinks to the level of allegory or “contemporary relevance,” being confident in its own world-building. There are so many little touches I appreciated, such as the social tension between a genetically “superior” lead detective and his “inferior”—but clearly wiser—subordinate, the instances when characters fail to see what their assumptions have rendered impossible, and a particular moment in which a black geneticist, without irony, gently persuades a white couple of the benefits of engineering their next child for genetic perfection. I loved the use director Andrew Niccol made of contrasting and parallel spaces, juxtaposing the cramped with the expansive, the ocean with the land, the sea and outer space. Niccol, who also wrote The Truman Show, has only a few directing credits to his name, but Gattaca’s tight excellence makes a strong case for writers directing their own films. 

Viewers should be aware that the PG-13-rated film contains a few instances of strong language, mild, non-sexual nudity (in the form of a male character scraping his hair and skin to discard genetic material), and two brief non-marital romantic encounters in which nothing explicit is shown. True to its own themes, the film never attempts to titillate viewers, and the bedroom scenes can be skipped without losing the plot. In this reviewer’s opinion, the film would be appropriate for most sixteen-year-olds, with a few quick look-aways or a finger on the “skip” button. The only real concern I had was over a certain player whose untimely exit from the stage, though perhaps true to his characterization, leaves one unsettled. The film portrays his suicide as either morally neutral or tragically inevitable, but I think it contradicts the film’s strongly pro-life themes. 

Still, in movies as in human progress, perfection may be too unrealistic an expectation. That a film in such opposition to the reductionist tendencies of our age could even emerge from Hollywood should itself be considered a triumph. With the caveats mentioned above, I strongly recommend Gattaca for adults, and for well-formed older teenagers. Considered as dystopian literature, this film is morally superior to works like Brave New World and 1984, which also grapple with dehumanized, over-planned futures, but with far less hope in the triumph of the human spirit.

About the Author

Joe Breslin

Fifth Grade Homeroom

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Joe Breslin teaches writing, and other homeroom subjects at the Heights School. In 2022, he published Other Minds: 13 Tales of Wonder and Sorrow. His next collection of speculative fiction, Hearts Uncanny, will be released late summer of 2024. Samples of his fiction and his essays can be found at

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