The genetically engineered future depicted in "Gattaca" makes for a chilly, neurotic night at the movies.

Published October 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

WHEN SCIENCE-FICTION scenarists imagine a future shaped by eugenics, it's typically cold, bright, antiseptic. "Gattaca," an intermittently imaginative new movie about a "not too distant future" dominated by a genetically programmed elite, alters this picture in subtle ways: Its characters strive for a germ-free gleam but always seem to be littering the floor with unwanted bits of genetic material -- eyelashes, skin flakes, hair. And in this world, even when you're a "Valid," and have had all standard-issue imperfections (myopia, baldness, cardiac flaws) removed from your chromosomes, you must still submit yourself to endless finger-pricking blood tests and urine donations to prove your status; your precious bodily fluids are always on call.

"Gattaca's" protagonist is an "Invalid" masquerading as one of the elite. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is really a "faith child," a product of the old-fashioned genetic lottery, and his near-sightedness and other imperfections doom him to a life of cleaning toilets. But Vincent Has A Dream -- he wants more than anything to be navigator on a spaceship to Titan, Saturn's moon. So, with the aid of a black-market specialist in "borrowed ladders" -- genetic identities for sale -- he hooks up with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law). Jerome has a perfect gene map, but something's gone wrong with his life anyway; an auto accident turned him into an alcoholic in a wheelchair, and now he's willing to sell his genetic identity to Vincent as long as Vincent keeps him in booze.

Which turns out to be a lot tougher than just, say, forging a signature. Vincent and Jerome wind up as roommates -- with Jerome stockpiling his blood and pee in basement refrigerators and Vincent resorting to elaborate rituals of depilation and skin-scraping to remove traces of his own genes. Vincent passes himself off as Jerome well enough to make it into the inner sanctum of the Gattaca Corporation, a fortress of the super-elite that runs the space missions Vincent yearns to join. (Gattaca's name is derived from the four letters of DNA code -- GTCA.) But days before his launch, a murder inside Gattaca leads to investigations that threaten to unmask his ruse.

"Gattaca" is at its best as a suspense film in which Vincent keeps barely eluding detection. He makes it harder on himself by starting a romance with a coworker named Irene (Uma Thurman); returning from a date, they hit a police roadblock, and Vincent must ditch his contact lenses or be exposed. A moment later, Irene is beckoning him across a crowded freeway to watch the sun rise over a sea of solar panels. All he can see now is blurred headlights; he charges through the traffic anyway, in a montage that's more artfully suspenseful than the kind of shootouts that are more standard science-fiction fare in Hollywood today.

Implausible in countless ways and wooden for long stretches, "Gattaca" at least never collapses into a special-effects barrage or erupts in long, choreographed explosions; it sticks carefully to its pristine vision. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, a New Zealander who apprenticed as an ad man, eschews Hollywood-futurist clichis for a timeless classical look -- the nightclubs are 1940s throwbacks, the offices canyons of wood and marble. No fins anywhere.

The Gattaca company itself is, however, more than a little ridiculous. With everyone perfectly groomed, checking in each morning past blood-testing turnstiles, marching around in identical dark-blue suits and keeping an earnest demeanor, the place is like a cross between a futuristic advertising agency and an Anglophile boarding school (it's as if Hawke had never left "Dead Poets' Society"). And though the Gattacans are supposed to be supergeniuses as well as superhunks, their workplace comes off like a secretarial pool: "You keep your workstation so clean -- and not one error in a million keystrokes," murmurs Vincent's boss (a pompous Gore Vidal, who looks vaguely puzzled to be on the set).

It's hard to see why anyone would struggle as hard as Vincent does to join a club so glum. Jerome, an upper-crust British lush straight out of "Brideshead Revisited," is supposed to be the guy whose spirit was broken -- but he's the only character with any wit or spunk. At one point, he pukes up his guts after a boozy overindulgence, then asks Vincent, "Do you want this? I'll save some for you."

Vincent's relationship with Thurman's Irene never really goes anywhere; "Gattaca" is much more interested in the repressed homoerotics of his "Odd Couple" relationship with Jerome -- or the similarly charged nature of his rivalry with a genetically perfect younger brother. But plainly (and despite a brief bedroom scene between Vincent and Irene), no one in "Gattaca" is about to have sex with anyone, male or female. For these obsessive-compulsive neatniks, it would be just too yucky.

Relatively modest and reasonably coherent, "Gattaca" is a pleasant surprise only in the context of the mess Hollywood keeps making of science-fiction story lines. But I wish Niccol had had the guts to push more deeply into themes he only grazes. For all their dress-for-success genetic programming, "Gattaca's" elites are a strangely neurotic, petulant lot; Jerome, for example, seems to have begun his downward spiral when his athletic prowess won him only a silver medal instead of a gold. Poor boy!

It's obvious that the "burden of perfection" has spoiled these people -- but no one in "Gattaca" besides Vincent seems to have caught on. The film plainly aspires to serious insights into human nature -- how our strengths are woven in with our imperfections in an intricate double helix of the spirit. But it doesn't let most of its characters get to square one in the psychological drama. When they sculpted the DNA for the perfect race in "Gattaca," somebody left out the gene for self-knowledge.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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