Vincent Freeman is born into a world that has perfected genetic modification so parents can choose exactly what traits they want for their children before they are born. Designer babies, they call them. Vincent’s parents, a sincerely religious couple, decide to have Vincent without any modifying. A bad choice: the presiding doctor tells his parents he has a genetic heart defect that will shorten his life by over half. The rest of the movie finds Vincent, a man with a ticking clock, working against a system that works against the defective. He sets his sights on an impossible goal reserved for the engineered elite.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Tony Shalhoub, Elias Koteas, Xander Berkeley, Loren Dean. Directed by Andrew Niccol.
At least two sexual scenes, some graphic violence, and some language.
Why You Should See It:
Everyone roots for the underdog. Vincent watches rocketships taking off into space with a wistful ache; those ships are designed for the Ubermensch, the best of the best, the top of the class. Vincent can hardly jog without risk of dying. He has a brother who has been modified, his better in every way, and his parents are forward with him: outerspace is too dangerous. With a singular, almost robotic perseverance, Vincent lies his way into a world that deplores him.
There are multiple biblical references in the movie. Vincent is called a “God-child.” He’s a deceiver like Jacob. He’s the Prodigal Son on the run. His parents give birth to him amidst doubt and confusion, like Abraham and Sarah. Like Joseph he finds a new position where his own family would not recognize him. And the utopian vision of the future is just as much a dystopia that is seen in Revelation. There is also a bit of 1984, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Watership Down. The relentless society reminds me of the Babylonian Captivity, the stark oppression against the extracted Israelites who only want to commune with God. Vincent only wants to see the stars.
We know there is something inherently wrong with the science of eugenics in this movie, but we also find ourselves curious about the advantages. On one hand we would want our children to be free of common diseases, birth defects, and otherwise harmful disabilities that would make life difficult. We spend efforts to cure these things in a child’s lifetime; why not before they’re born? But the more questionable elements are troubling. Eye color, hair color, height, build, athletic inclinations, career placement, intelligence level, behavioral tendencies. This is almost tinkering with the soul. I can imagine this being the norm one day, just as much as we dye our hair, pay for plastic surgery, fake our resumes, and commit to therapy. I’d also imagine that like Vincent’s parents, there would be some that choose to brave the world without external crutches.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The main narrative — Vincent exchanging lives with Jerome Morrow — is the driving force of the movie. Jerome was one of the elite until an accident left him in a wheelchair; he lends his identity to Vincent. This involves pieces of hair, skin cells, blood, and urine, since even these are detectible by scanners. Jerome, played brilliantly by Jude Law as perhaps the most fleshed out character in the film (no pun intended), is a haunted, funny man. We slowly understand he was like this before the accident. As Vincent infiltrates into Gattaca we start to care more for Jerome, the real underdog here, and in the most suspenseful scene of the movie the director places Jerome in imminent danger. In most movies, a scene like this would cut to the hero having already taken control of the situation, but instead we see every pulse-pounding second of Jerome fighting to win. Jerome’s final scene is the most moving of the film.
A woman named Irene takes interest in Vincent because he is so obviously different than the rest of society’s drones. She catches him watching every shuttle launch; while most astronauts have relegated their trip as work, in Vincent’s eyes we see a dream. Irene knows it. Dating involves running an illegal DNA scan of someone’s runaway hair to see if they’re the perfect match. It’s a shrewd if understandable practice. Irene confesses she has scanned Vincent in a scene that is twisted and amusing. Their interest in each other grows, even if we know it’s doomed. Their last exchange, involving one plucked hair, conveys that even in a designer world people can still care for sincerity, and want to.
The movie’s incredible premise is occasionally hampered by some dull plotting. Two subplots don’t work as well: Vincent’s brother and the murder mystery. There are also illogical leaps of character motivations where the director might have cut scenes for length. Maybe some of these irrational cuts are purposeful maneuvers, showing that perfected humans can’t make perfect decisions. Design doesn’t make logic, and logic cannot always make design. Playing God with man does not make gods. And even machines break down.