Throwback Thursday: DNA Forms the Base for Gattaca

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Gattaca theatrical poster. Top left corner says Ethan Hawke and the top right corner says Uma Thurman. Top half of the poster shows the pair clearly close and a faded image of Saturn and the stars behind them. The lower half shows the helix staircase and the pair running down it, near the bottom.

Gattaca Theatrical poster

In today’s society, where you can conceivably do anything you want to do, 1997’s Gattaca asks the question: What if we are told what we can or can’t do based on our genetics? In the not-too-distant future, eugenics through genetic manipulation has taken over and children are modified to be the best they can. High cancer rate in your genes? Get rid of those genes. Want your child to be taller? Adjust those genes. High blood pressure? There’s a gene to alter for that too. Geneticists are consulted, embryos are created in vitro, and after genetic screening and alterations, implanted. Those with the altered genes are called Valids.

So where does that leave a child who hasn’t had their genes tampered with? They aren’t Valid, but In-valid—conceived naturally. They’re forced to do the menial jobs no one else wants in this perfect society. But what if they want more out of their life? Tough luck. Their genes aren’t worthy.

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is born an In-valid in this society and just wants to get into space, but the closest he can get is as a janitor for the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. Instead of giving up, he risks everything by assuming the identity of a Valid, Eugene, played by Jude Law. When a murder at his company threatens to expose everything, Vincent must fight not only for his job, but his burgeoning relationship with Irene (Uma Thurman) and prove that he’s not the murderer.

This is not a popcorn summer blockbuster sci-fi film. It’s very understated in its approach and delivery. The scenic design has a very retro-futuristic feel—think a 1950s idea of the future. Even the electric cars hearken back to that era in their design. Much of Gattaca was filmed at the Marin County Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1960. There are not a lot of visual effects in the film and no big action set pieces. This is sci-fi for the thinking person that welcomes its viewer to dwell on it and talk about it.

Jude Law downstairs in the house and Ethan Hawke is walking down the DNA-helix staircase behind him. Lots of greys and browns used in the film.

Ethan Hawke and Jude Law are framed very nicely.

I’ve always thought Jude Law is better in supporting roles than trying to carry a film on his own and this film is no exception. He does exceptional work as the Valid who has lost everything and turned to drink with Vincent to support him. The end of the film for his character works so well, and that’s because we see the sorrow in his eyes and see the thoughts in his head. Uma Thurman doesn’t have a lot to work with here (shocker in Hollywood, I know), but she makes the character her own and gives her a sense of believability when the script just needs her to go through the motions. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Maya Rudolph (SNL) as a delivery nurse. Everyone has to start somewhere.

In addition to its leads, Gattaca offers a great character/voice actor in Alexander Berkeley as one of the company doctors, Lamar. He actually has one of the best lines and deliveries in the film. It comes towards the end of the film, and you’ll know it when you hear it. If you don’t recognize his name, his face might ring a bell as he’s been a working actor since the ’80s and has appeared most recently on The Walking Dead as Hilltop Colony’s leader, Gregory. If you’re more of a cartoon person you might recognize his voice from Gargoyles, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, or a host of other work. Seriously, check out his resume.

GATTACA, Xander Berkeley, Ethan Hawke, 1997, (c)Columbia Tristar Ethan is in a black suit going through a bright door.

Xander Berkeley is just checking Ethan Hawke’s DNA.

Much of the film relies on Ethan Hawke and he doesn’t disappoint in showing the steps a person will go to get what they want, while proving everyone who thinks they’re no good wrong. I think what this film does well is show that Vincent does not accomplish anything just overnight. He studies and works his butt off. In our society, as well as this fictional one, we have become very fixated on instant gratification and entitlement. In the film, this is shown by the Valids just expecting to get the good jobs and have the better lives. (Why shouldn’t they since they’re tailor made to be better?) Hawke’s Vincent fights against that with all his might. To him, and certainly it is the message of Gattaca, it doesn’t matter where you come from and the advantages afforded you; it’s all about what you are willing to do to get there.

The team running at the gym, on treadmills. Ethan Hawke is in the forefront.

This isn’t Baywatch, but keep ’em running.

Gattaca was considered a failure at the box office, not even making back half of its budget, but it has grown in quiet esteem over the years. If you get a chance, definitely check it out. Never let them tell you what you can’t do. Just be prepared to work hard for it.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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