Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Gattaca (1997)
Studio Line: Columbia-Tristar - There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit.

Gattaca Corp. is an aerospace firm in the future. During this time society analyzes your DNA and determines where you belong in life. Ethan Hawke's character was born with a congenital heart condition which would cast him out of getting a chance to travel in space. So in turn he assumes the identity of an athlete who has genes that would allow him to achieve his dream of space travel.

Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine
Box Office: Budget: $36 million. Opening Weekend: $4.32 million (1279 screens). Domestic Gross: $12.339 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0, Spanish & French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated PG-13; 106 min.; $19.95; street date 6/30/98.
Supplements: Lost Scenes; Theatrical Trailer; Documentary; Poster Gallery; Photo Gallery; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Superbit DVD | Score soundtrack - Michael Nyman

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/C-

Folks tend to use the phrase "science fiction" in a fairly generic way that covers a myriad of genres. Action (Aliens), horror (Alien), fantasy (Star Wars), film noir (Blade Runner), comedy(Spaceballs), family drama (E.T.)... these movies have little in common other than the fact they're all considered to be science fiction.

Action/fantasy-type films dominate the genre. Generally when the term "science fiction" is used, we think of Star Wars, Star Trek, or something else that deals with other worlds and adventures. Really, most science fiction movies spend their time dealing with the fiction, not the science.

Gattaca offers an exception to that rule. Obviously it's fiction, since it takes place in an undefined but "not-too-distant" future. However, the movie's main focus deals with the ramifications of science, particularly in the area of genetic research. What if we get to the point where your baby can essentially be "made to order"? What if science could remove most of the uncertainties that come with reproduction? What would the world then be like? Those are the areas explored in Gattaca.

To the film's credit, the ramifications of these possibilities are looked at calmly and rationally. Many films might take a Stepford Wives or Children of the Corn approach to the notion of a society into which babies can be genetically altered, but Gattaca avoids any overt attempts to shock. It tries to examine what the effects of these scientific advances might be upon those who aren't the best of the best.

Really, the story told in Gattaca relates closely to any other "overcoming the odds" films such as Rudy or Simon Birch. The film's thesis essentially comes down to the tagline for the movie's ad campaign: "There is no gene for the human spirit."

Unlike most films of the "triumph of the human spirit" ilk, however, Gattaca is really quite subtle. Yes, our hero has to overcome tremendous odds to achieve his goal, but the movie avoids melodrama and crass manipulation. I usually hate these kinds of "uplifting" films because they're so cheesy and obvious, and they're often quite sickeningly sugary sweet as they push you toward their artificially emotional climaxes.

Gattaca doesn't do that. I did find it to be emotional and actually uplifting, but not in a phony way. It's a quite understated film, and it's surprisingly effective.

One criticism leveled at Gattaca is its slow pace. Yes, the picture does proceed at a less-than-breakneck speed, but I didn't think it was too slow. Really, it's nice to see a film for once that doesn't feel it has to give the audience a big song and dance during every second of its running time; ideas and themes are given time to flow and evolve at their own pace.

Another criticism revolves around its acting, primarily its lead. Ethan Hawke possesses some box office possibilities, but Olivier he ain't; Hawke's repertoire includes smirking and sneering and that's about it. Nonetheless, while he does little to elevate his role, he also does little to hurt it; he's a liability, but not a gross one.

The supporting cast is really a top-notch group, but they do little to distinguish themselves in their roles as well. Alan Arkin is his usual fine self, and I always like to see Tony Shalhoub, but neither they nor most of the others stand out as terrific. The sole exception comes from Jude Law in his role as the bitter, selfish man whose persona Hawke's Vincent assumes. Law's really quite exceptional in what could have been a one-note role; his is the only fully-realized performance in the film.

Despite the high quality of Gattaca, it completely failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in the fall of 1997. This probably shouldn't have been a surprise, since action fans would be disinterested in such a cerebral film, and those who go for more thoughtful fare may have been turned off by its sci-fi trappings. As seen in the DVD's supplemental materials, the ad campaign probably didn't help much either.

Included on the Gattaca DVD is its trailer. It does a fairly poor job of communicating the nature and content of the film. Watching it, you're not sure just what to make of the movie, but it's rapid-fire editing and breathless music certainly make the film look more like an action flick than it is. Unfortunately, it makes the movie look like a rather bad action flick, so it's no surprise the crowds stayed home for this one.

Unfortunately, this meant that Gattaca didn't reach much of a crowd, and that's a shame. While not flawless, the movie seems very moving and compelling, and it features a generally low-key take that is very refreshing. It gets its emotions naturally, and does little to force them. Gattaca offers a compelling and provocative experience.

The DVD:

Gattaca appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Though not among the best DVD pictures on the market, Gattaca seemed satisfying as a whole.

Sharpness appeared consistently solid. Throughout the movie, it remained distinct and accurate. I detected no significant signs of softness as the film always came across as crisp and well delineated. Jagged edges and moirť effects caused no concerns, and I detected no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws were minor. Some light grain cropped up at times, and I also saw occasional examples of grit and speckles, but these were not large issues. At times, the image presented some modest digital artifacts, but these also didnít cause any grave problems.

Gattaca featured an intentionally limited palette that fit with the sterile depiction of the future. As such, colors looked clear and appropriately saturated, but they werenít terribly vivid or attractive. Nonetheless, they seemed to replicate the filmmakersí intentions, and they showed good accuracy with no problems related to noise, bleeding, or other issues. Black levels seemed fairly deep and rich, while shadow detail was reasonably clean and visible; low-light situations appeared slightly muddy at times, but they generally came across well. Overall, the picture of Gattaca presented a positive experience.

Also good but not stunning was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Gattaca. Since the movie wasnít exactly an action spectacular, most of the mix worked in fairly subtle ways, but it did so effectively. Music came nicely from all five speakers so that the score warmly enveloped the environment, and some solid usage of directional dialogue occurred as well. Many of the effects tended toward general ambience, but these added a lot to the experience, and the track came to life more actively when appropriate. My only complaint stemmed from the fact that some elements didnít pan especially well. Note the movement of the cars during the sequence when Vincent crosses the street; they tended to transition fairly abruptly. Nonetheless, the soundfield seemed good for the most part.

Audio quality also was solid. Some dialogue was a little awkwardly looped, but most of it sounded natural and warm, and I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were accurate and clear. They boasted good bass response when appropriate - such as during rocket blasts - and also were clean and lacked distortion. Music sounded lush and rich, with nice fidelity and good depth. As a whole, the soundtrack of Gattaca lacked the breadth and impact to reach ďAĒ territory, but it still worked well for the material

Gattaca includes a few supplements. Most significant are the Lost Scenes. This area includes five actual deleted scenes and one joke outtake. Each lasts between 30 seconds and three minutes, 18 seconds for a total of almost 11 minutes of footage. I thought most of the deleted bits deserved to be cut, especially the very unsubtle ďCodaĒ that seems out of touch with the rest of the film. However, I did like the scene between Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin) and Vincentís brother Anton (Loren Dean); it added to the formerís character in a nice way, and it should have remained in the film. In any case, I was happy to get to see these unused snippets.

We also find that trailer I so disliked; it runs two and a half minutes and is paired with an alleged documentary. Actually, the latter is nothing but a promotional featurette. The six-minute and 50-second program features lots of movie clips plus a few behind the scenes shots and some generally bland and uninformative soundbites from actors Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, and Jude Law as well as producers Danny De Vito and Stacey Sher. Itís a total waste of time.

Lastly, we find an exceedingly brief Poster Gallery; it includes a whopping three images. Thereís also a 21 still Photo Gallery that provides nothing special, but I was interested to learn that the filmís working title was The Eighth Day. Some short and perfunctory Production Notes also appear in the DVDís booklet.

Gattaca remains a thoughtful and moving example of true science fiction at its best. The movie seems a little slow at times, but I think itís generally provocative and compelling. The DVD offers very good picture and sound as well as a smattering of decent supplements. Hopefully Gattaca will find a more substantial audience on DVD than it did theatrically.

To rate this film go to GATTACA: Superbit.

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