Gattaca, 1997, 106 mins, 4K UHD
The future in films is always a pretty complicated thing- sometimes Utopian, sometimes Dystopian, various visions that, as the years go by, might in hindsight seem surprisingly spot-on, or surprisingly wide of the mark. Back in 1968 during the glory days of the space race, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed pretty convincing, and while it remains largely definitive and prescient regards technology and space travel, in hindsight it was clearly at least a century out regards its timeline. When Blade Runner came out in 1982, its narrative setting of 2019 already seemed unlikely, as reality proved – but I find it endlessly amusing that reality also turned what was in 1982 a Dystopian vision instead into a Utopian one. Reality has fairly out-nightmared Ridley Scott, and when I watch Blade Runner these days it seems positively escapist entertainment.
Gattaca posits a future that does not belong to us ordinary, natural homo sapiens. Its something that I began to appreciate as I grew up, reading science fiction novels and absorbing science news, for example about how dangerous and inhospitable space is. It became pretty clear to me that humans leaving the Earth behind will be different, either coldly efficient like Kubrick’s astronauts and scientists, or physically enhanced to withstand the rigours of cosmic radiation or living in zero/low-gravity. I doubt future humans will be so comfortably familiar as they are, say, in Star Trek. I think future humans will be different, just as we would look different to prehistoric humans: in the same way as we have been shaped by our environment and technology, so will future humans who may not, physically, appear as wholly human as we might expect. A lifetime out in the Asteroid Belt, or on a Jovian or Saturnian moon would result in a physique, and likely mental, aspect quite unlike that of us today.
Maybe I’m too critical, maybe humanists would point towards a more reassuring, familiar shape for humanity out in the solar system and the stars, would argue that we won’t really change much at all. All I’d suggest is that when I was a kid, nobody would have believed that everyone in streets and buses and trains would be so endlessly tied to and fascinated by the little screens they carry around with them. Technology is already shaping us and our behaviour. I remember going for a meal and seeing another couple, arriving at another table after us, immediately upon sitting down each taking out their mobile phones and, instead of talking to each other, instead ignored each other, absorbed in their little screens and messages. It caught my eye and seemed quite alien, but you see that kind of thing all the time.
Gattaca suggests a biological advance, of genetic enhancements purchased to order prior even to conception, or immediately after, geneticists removing bad genes, replacing or improving them, ensuring a physical and mental perfection, or at least as near damn it. Wealth ensures success and opportunity, while poverty, the economic inability to utilise the biological tinkering ensures membership of a social underclass. Its not far removed from how education separates many today into different social classes and opportunity (the last five Prime Minsters, for instance, all attended Oxford – not certain if that’s a pro-Oxford commentary or not, considering how inept may of our Prime Minsters have actually been in the job).
Gattaca has always felt utterly convincing to me, like its future is inescapable. I’m not suggesting that’s its prime appeal; I think its best feature is its human drama, but nonetheless there is some fundamental truth to the future it envisages. Its a future horribly sad and dystopian, albeit tinged with a message of hope for the human spirit, a last hurrah for the humanity we are today. Vincent’s triumph is one for all of us, but I always think its a final one, that the future belongs to the others, those enhanced humans who curiously don’t seem to interact at all. There is largely something curiously cold and robotic about Vincent’s colleagues, not quite human, as if its suggesting that its our imperfections and limitations, and how we work work around them, that make us human.
I first saw Gattaca during its original cinema run here in the UK in 1998 and was immediately captivated by it, and have remained so ever since. Its one of those films that is pretty much perfect. Great script, visually impressive, great cast, wonderful music score – its up there with The Shawshank Redemption, Field of Dreams, and Glory for me, to name a few examples… films that may or may not be defined as Great Cinema like Citizen Kane, say, but are nonetheless essentially perfect.
Gattaca‘s premise is fascinating, scarily convincing, its script finely written with great characters and a great setting, using the films limited budget to its advantage, leveraging its future setting into the background, a ‘less is more’ approach that is refreshing. Nowadays it would be ‘bigger’ and more spectacular, no doubt, thanks to temptations of easy CGI enhancements, but I feel this would work to the films detriment. Instead, in just the same way as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble In Mind (1985) did, the film thankfully focuses on its characters, and its cast, who are all at the top of their game- indeed what a cast! Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Elias Koteas, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub, Xander Berkley… this time around I spotted Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris playing a cop (probably because I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad last time I watched this film). Its a wonderful cast, really one of the films pleasures.
Of course being such a fan of this film, I’ve purchased it on home video a number of times; back in the early days of R1 DVD, later on Blu-ray and now on a 4K UHD that looks quietly gorgeous in that understated way that fits the film so well. This isn’t a film to ‘wow’ viewers with HDR but it does afford a level of detail and breadth of colour that is lovely. I often find myself referring to Gattaca and people looking blankly at me, and I often wonder when, if ever, its time will come (it seems to have been largely forgotten over the years, as some films strangely do). Maybe one day in decades hence when people are buying designer babies and choosing sex, hair colour, etc like we choose options when buying cars, people will note how eerily prescient Gattaca was; not all Hollywood futures come true (thankfully, in some cases), but perhaps this film, softly whispering down the decades like a cautionary Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling story, will be appreciated not just for being a great film but also a warning of what lies ahead and what might be avoided. Nearly two decades earlier, Star Trek: The Motion Picture proclaimed that ‘the human adventure is just beginning’ and while Gattaca darkly suggests otherwise, it perhaps also ponders there’s maybe an alternative, or that at least we should consider what being human really means.