The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Gattaca – still as gorgeous after 15 years

with 33 comments

“There’s no gene for fate”, says Vincent in an early scene in Gattaca, thus summarizing what the film is about: a man who decides to take charge of his own destiny, ignoring what his genes and society has to say about it.

The story about the underdog who challenges the establishment and aims for the stars has been told over and over again, not the least with the science fiction genre. But very few times has it been told as beautifully and touching as in this film.

And now you have to excuse me, because I’m about to write a pretty incoherent, rambling piece of a review. But you know how it is when you’ve just fallen in love – you get dizzy and can’t think clearly.

Fresh after 15 years
So after all those years I finally got around seeing this film and I can’t believe what took me so long. I bet many of you have seen it ages ago, maybe even in a theatre. But if there are any more latecomers out there who consider watching it after hearing me gushing over it, I can assure you that it’s top notch fresh 15 years after the premier.

That’s not always the case with science fiction movies. Due to development in science, technology, special effects and society overall, they have the unfortunate tendency to age pretty quickly and not always in a charming and flattering way. But Gattaca was made with a timeless style that makes it look vaguely futuristic without being tied to a certain year. With the exception of a couple of computer screens (always those computers!) it could as well have been made last year.

The film puts up questions about where the chase for perfection can lead us, and they’re more relevant than ever. I can’t tell exactly when it happened, but when I look back twenty years, I have the feeling that a lot of boundaries have been moved. Look at the tailoring of our offspring where future parents try to find an optimal sperm donator to increase the chances for their child to become a natural talent in some area. Look at the interruption of pregnancies where the fetus is “lacking” in the eyes of the parents. Look at the development of plastic surgery. It used to be something odd, almost eccentric. Now it’s a standard procedure. I would say that in the time that has passed since Gattaca was made we’ve gotten a little bit closer to the society it depictures.

I guess I should say few words about the story. So: this is the near future, where the genetic engineering is a bit more advanced than today.  Children with any kind of disease or handicap or other “flaw” are selected away before birth. The “imperfect” people who still exist are second class citizens. Vincent is one of the outcasts, burdened with an increased chance to get a heart condition. His dream is to travel to the stars, but to be hired for that you need to be a “perfect” specimen of a human. He comes up with a way to work around it. Will he succeed?

Works on many levels
Gattaca succeeds at so many levels. On one level you can see it as an exciting thriller. Without giving away any details I can say that there’s a crime story and an investigation and you’re also always on your toes, torn between hope and despair whether Vincent will succeed or not.

It’s also a great science fiction story that is a treat for all of us who prefer idea based science fiction to stories about space cowboys killing each other. Think Philip K Dick; think Ray Bradbury, and you’re on the right track.

But it’s also a piece of well crafted drama. The main characters aren’t just cupboard figures. We get to know them pretty closely and we see several relationships develop over time.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Gattaca is also a treat for the eye. It’s simply gorgeous to look at, with a beautiful, consistent and believable art direction that puts you in the right mood, and excellent cinematography by Slawomir Idziak, who previously has done the footage of The Double Life of Veronique among many other movies.

So here we are with a good looking movie with a story that kept me hooked and characters I genuinely cared about (not the least thanks to excellent performances by Ethan Hawke and Jude Law). What more could you possibly wish for?

I won’t be surprised if Gattaca snatches one of the spots the day I decide to make a top 10 list over my favorite science fiction movies. I liked it that much.

Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, US, 1997) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

June 12, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Gattaca

33 Responses

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  1. I think this is among one of the most underrated film of the last 2 decades. So far, it’s the only film that Andrew Niccol did that has great ideas and manages to pull it off. I love Slawomir Idziak’s photography. The music and the sci-fi elements. The performances by Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law I think don’t get enough love.

    Steven Flores

    June 12, 2012 at 2:10 am

    • I disagree about it being the only film that Andrew Niccol managed to pull off, since I’m a fan of Truman Show, which he wrote. But you’re right that this film seems to be sadly overlooked. I checked the box office figures at IMDb and unless I missed a few “0”s it seems to me as if it was a loss.


      June 12, 2012 at 7:45 am

      • Actually, I think of Peter Weir when it comes to The Truman Show since he directed it. I keep forgetting that Niccol wrote that film.

        Steven Flores

        June 12, 2012 at 10:56 pm

        • I read somewhere that the idea initially was that he would direct it but that they brought in Weirt to have a safer name. But I can definitely sense the connection. Good idea-based sci-fi screenwriting…


          June 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm

  2. This is a terribly underrated film in my opinion. It’s beautiful to look at as well as being a moving story (and one that continues to grow in importance). Science fiction gives us the ability to address these questions of our genetic destiny and the definition of humanity, and Gattaca does it as well as any other film of the last couple of decades.

    It’s also aided by a good cast and a smart script. But maybe it’s just us. I’ve recommended this film to a number of people, and they usually come back to me puzzled. Perhaps they expect science fiction to be filled with aliens and lasers and not thoughtful contemplation of the genetic heritage of our species.


    June 12, 2012 at 2:22 am

    • Strange that you get those reactions. My 18 year old watched this at school before I watched it at home and she thought it was great. She’s normally not a huge sci-fi fan. But again: perhaps people have the wrong ideas about what is science fiction.


      June 12, 2012 at 7:46 am

  3. I was sitting in a theater a few weeks before “Gattaca” came out with a couple friends. I don’t remember what movie we were watching, but the preview trailer was for “Gattaca”. It was literally the worse trailer I have ever seen. The entire audience was laughing at how cliched and just plain awful it was. With that as a ‘best foot forward’, we decided then and there to skip this dreck.

    About 5 years later I’m watching late night cable and flipping between movie channels at around 3AM. “Gattaca” is showing. I figure this should be good for a few laughs before bed. I watched the whole movie. Then I checked the schedule and found it was repeating on the west coast feed so I watched it again. It is one of the most brilliant sci-fi movies I’ve seen ever. I still stop and watch most of the time it shows up on television.

    Great acting, a wonderful story, a premise that holds up over a decade later. What is there not to love about this. Heck, you can watch just as design porn because of how beautiful it looks. A good movie for anybody, but a must see for anybody that likes science fiction.


    June 12, 2012 at 3:15 am

    • What a shame with those horrible trailers that can keep you away from a movie. It’s not unusual, but it’s so sad when it happens to a movie like this one.

      I’m so glad you stumbled into it later on though. Such a brilliant movie and a must-see like you say. Here’s to you for being as much of a fan as I am. Cheers!


      June 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  4. Great post, Jessica! This one is very high in my to-watch list!


    June 12, 2012 at 3:31 am

  5. I have to admit I’ve not seen this film, though now I’m very interested. One of my favourite animes of all times is Gundam Seed (and it’s sequel Gundam Seed Destiny,) that approach a very similar topic. The boundary between those that can afford genetic alteration and those that can’t, the abilities, the jealousies and conflicts, the economic and societal problems it causes leading up to a separation and almost two entirely separate societies forming, eventually ending in war.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution also approaches a similar topic, but instead of genetic enhancements it’s technological. With ‘augments’ and their evolution and again societal impact.

    I feel after mapping the human genome and the fact it seems technology is advancing more than society is maturing will eventually lead to a pretty catastrophic misuse of tech. I think movies like this serve as a bit of a warning for that, and hope that we can make it through it.

    Either way interesting topic with lots to think about, and hey a new movie that sounds interesting.

    Win all around.

    • Holly, I really think you should watch this. In return I should look up the animes you’re suggesting.

      Great to see you around as always. Cheers!


      June 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  6. I actually re-watched this for the first time in 6, 7 years a few weeks ago. I was one of those people who saw it in the theater and have always felt – like a couple commenters above – that it was terribly underrated. So glad you saw it and to hear it made such a deep impression on you.

    I think you’re right on about the look and how it hasn’t aged and I think that’s because Niccol did such a great job of making it feel like such an old-fashioned epic wrapped up in sci-fi.


    June 12, 2012 at 4:08 am

    • Yes, it has a very timeless classic feeling to it and I can definitely imagine myself revisiting it in the future.


      June 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

  7. I remember seeing this years ago when it came out and thinking it was just OK. But reading your review makes me want to rewatch it. I should reevaluate it.

    Dave Enkosky

    June 12, 2012 at 4:59 am

    • Go ahead and to it. People change and you might see it in a different light now.


      June 12, 2012 at 7:51 am

  8. I haven’t seen this….. Shall I go and give myself 30 lashes? Great review, I am IN!!

  9. Excellent film and excellent review Jessia. It’s been a while since I seen it but I have always praised this film, yet no one seemed to listen. I loved it. I think it’s because this film was so good that I had high hopes for Niccol’s recent Sci-fi “In Time”. That was a real letdown but at least he’s always got this one to fall back on.

    Mark Walker

    June 12, 2012 at 10:37 am

    • Thanks Mark! I also thought that In Time was a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what it could have been. Yet: I love him for writing the kind of scripts that I love: full of interesting ideas and not just special effects.


      June 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm

      • It’s Niccol’s interesting ideas that have always caught me. In time was no different, it was an excellent concept but he failed to dig deeper which is quite surprising for him. Gattaca delivered on it’s premise I think and I’m glad it has developed a bit of an underground fan base.

        Mark Walker

        June 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm

        • An underground fan base? Yay, where can I buy a membership card?
          I’m going to champion this film as the next Movie of the month at LAMB, to appear in LAMBcast. The competition is fierce but I’ll do anything to spread the word about this one.


          June 13, 2012 at 8:24 am

  10. Unlike most others (apparently) I’m no great fan of this movie. Perhaps I had the wrong expectations when I watched it? I have also re-watched it a couple of times and it never sticks. But Niccol as a director always manages to present really exciting ideas that doesn’t come through all the way.

    Maybe he’s better as a writer only — I love Truman Show as well.


    June 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

    • Strange. I don’t know what to say. We just can’t agree about everything, can we?


      June 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

      • Perhaps great minds does not always think alike? 😉


        June 13, 2012 at 8:53 am

  11. I’ll have to find another movie to recommend now! I’m glad you loved it as much as I do.

    As I’ve told you before, it’s one of my all time favourite movies. It’s what a science fiction movie should be, it’s asking the right questions. And I still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

    -What if you can select the gender of your child? Won’t there be way too many males in most of the world?
    -What if you can buy better genes? Won’t that create an even bigger gap between the poor and the rich?
    -What if we can live forever? Where will everyone live? Is it immoral to live forever?
    -If you can improve your childs genes, isn’t it immoral not to do it? Should the government enforce it as a form of child protection? Will some religious groups willingly create a minority by not using it?

    These are just a few of what I feel will be the big questions in the coming decades. Gattaca is one of the few movies that dears to ask some of these questions. And it’s also one warm movie where the force of will prevails over birth.


    June 12, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    • Now I remember! I should have known it was you that went on about it! You have the best of tastes for movies. Seriously. I would happily let you dictate all my movie selections.

      Some really great questions you put up there. No wonder they apparently show it at my daughter’s school as a jumping spot for discussions about such things.

      Gattaca asks those questions without putting anything on your nose. In the extra material they showed a sequence that they had cut out from the movie in the last minute: it was a bunch of images of successful people, like Einstein etc, who would have been eliminated in the kind of society depictured in Gattaca. But the took it away since it was too obvious and I think that was exactly the right decision. It makes a lot of interesting points but it’s not so preachy that it becomes too much.


      June 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      • Thanks for the nice compliment!

        As for a new recommendation, I’ve seen Once a few weeks ago and I think it’s a lovely movie. Maybe not top ten material but definitely worth watching.


        June 20, 2012 at 12:05 am

        • Oh I watched that in a theatre as it came out a few years ago, before I started to blog about movies. Really loved it! Now you need to make a new recommencation. 🙂


          June 20, 2012 at 12:16 am

  12. One of the things that I always think of in relation to GATTACA is that is a fine example of cinematic precision. It’s a comment that seems like a throwaway comment, but its something I feel filmmakers (especially firsttime ones like Niccols was when her first made this) aren’t able to get a handle on. Shorter isn’t always better but GATTACA is about 100 minutes, I think, and manages to pack all the turmoil, exposition and tension into itself without feeling under stuffed. It’s easily one of my favourite science oriented films, and in addition to working on a science fiction level a great showcase for its performers.

    (Jude and Ethan are great of course, but Uma with the least interesting of the three characters does some fine things, too.)

    It’s always great seeing this one get some recognition.

    Andrew K.

    June 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    • “Cinematic precision” is not at all a throwaway comment, it’s a very good observation and hits the nail about what makes this film so wonderful. I agree about everything you say.


      June 16, 2012 at 8:32 am

  13. I love Gattaca. I think you nail it in the description of the setting – they did an excellent job of making a “near-future” that still makes sense despite all the technological change of the last decade.

    But I guess the other thing I especially like about Gattaca is that it combines being thought-provoking whilst being a good story. All too often in films (or books) I think one gets hits over the head by a message, and the creators forget that first and foremost they have to create a good story. The creators and actors of Gattaca succeeded in doing so admirably, and therefore their message does not feel abrasive.


    June 16, 2012 at 1:19 am

    • Yes, it’s really so well balanced. Sci-fi movies are often mostly admired for the ideas or the art direction, but here they manage to have good characters and story as well.


      June 16, 2012 at 8:24 am

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