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Gattaca (1997)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/11/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/5/2008

A quick perusal of this website will show that I'm partial to horror films. Yes, I loved scary movies since I was a child, but unfortunately, they simply don't scare me anymore. But, that isn't to say that there aren't movie out there which don't give me the creeps. It's not the ones which features monsters or masked killers -- No, it's the films which feature undeniable truths about what a crazy place the world can be and how terribly humans can act. In that sense, the 1997 sci-fi thriller Gattaca may be one of the scariest movies ever.

Gattaca is set in a not too distant future where genetic research has reached the point where parents can custom order their children, and these children can be designed to be free from diseases or imperfections. Children conceived the old-fashioned way are called "Faith Births" or "Degenerates". In most cases, they are called "Invalids", while the genetic creations are called "Valid". We are told that it's illegal to discriminate against "Faith Births", but this treatment is rampant. The story is told by Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a "Faith Birth" who, at birth, is predicted to have heart disease and isn't expected to live past thirty. Disappointed in this, his parents next have a "Valid" child named Anton. Anton is a very competitive child and is constantly proving that he is in better shape than Vincent. Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut, and turns his attention to studying space travel. He wants to work at Gattaca (this future's version of NASA), but due to his status, he can only get a job there as a janitor.

Vincent decides that only way to fulfill his dream is to circumvent the system and take over someone else's identity. Through a man who deals in this sort of thing (Tony Shalhoub), he meets with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a former Olympic swimmer who is now confined to a wheelchair. Vincent "becomes" Jerome by using the man's blood, urine, hair, and skin to fool the DNA readers at Gattaca. In no time at all, Vincent is employed at Gattaca and has secured a seat aboard a space mission. Then, a murder occurs in the office. When the police detectives (Loren Dean and Alan Arkin) investigate the facility, they learn that an "Invalid" is present. Can Vincent continue to hide his identity under all of this scrutiny?

Gattaca is one of those films which is difficult to critique because so many elements of the movie succeed. Science-fiction is usually either too simple minded for hardcore fans or too abstract for general audiences, but this movie is able to straddle that fine line. Gattaca presents the viewer with a concept which could easily become overly complicated. But, the idea of genetic manipulation is presented in a very straightforward and matter-of-fact manner with no unnecessary scientific jargon -- people can be "designed" to be nearly perfect. Writer/Director Andrew Niccol then brings in an idea with which most everyone is accustomed; discrimination. Be it through racism or abilities, this is something that we've all seen and the movie reframes it into a scientific premise with ease. Niccol could have made the entire film about Vincent's struggles for acceptance, but that could have been boring and redundant. Adding a murder-mystery sub-plot to the story gives the "authorities" a reason to look for an impostor and thus, Vincent has all the more reason to hide his identity. While the central idea of the film is scary enough, the most disturbing idea here is that everyone knows that genetic discrimination occurs, but no one is seen protesting or questioning it.

There are two elements of Gattaca which keep it from being a perfect film for me. The first is the production design and costuming. By 1997, we'd seen plenty of movies where the time-frame was ambiguous due to the mixing of elements. Movies like Batman (Tim Burton's) and The Crow had given us settings where the time period was difficult to ascertain based solely on the cars and clothing. We get something similar with Gattaca. We know that it's the future, but everyone dresses like its the 1940s. All of the cars are very retro. The architecture is very modern. Given the powerful originality of the script, this approach feels rather trite. My other issue is the film's ending -- It simply doesn't feel realistic, even with the fact that this is sci-fi. We learn on the Blu-ray's supplemental features that the studio executives had the same issues with the ending that I did. The odd nature of the finale has made me wonder if the entire story is really happening, or if it's something which Vincent created.

Gattaca is one of those films which is easy to admire, but difficult to watch. The premise would have been frightening in 1997, but given the advances in genetic research since then, now it's down-right petrifying. This, coupled with the fact that there's little levity in the film certainly takes Gattaca off of the "party movie" list. But, there's no denying that this is a beautifully crafted, well-acted, and engrossing movie. This isn't a movie that you'll be pulling off of the shelf to watch each week with your friends, but it's a piece which makes you think, and given the often banal nature of entertainment, that's an accomplishment.

Gattaca is genetically superior on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 27 Mbps. This movie was a good choice for Blu-ray as the clean, minimalist sets look very good here. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain in some shots and I only spotted one black speck on the image. The picture has a good amount of detail and those cavernous Gattaca sets show a nice amount of depth. The picture is a bit soft at times, but I saw no video noise of artifacting. This definitely looks better than the previous DVD releases. The audio here is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 30 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Despite the subject matter, Gattaca often feels like a dialogue-driven drama. But, we do get some nice audio here. The crowd scenes provide good stereo and surround effects. The scene in Chapter 10 where Vincent is crossing the street has the speakers filled with the sounds of passing cars, and this really adds to the scene. The rocket launches from Gattaca provide a nice rumbling bass response.

The Gattaca Blu-ray Disc has a mixture of old and new extras. The disc contains six DELETED SCENES, which run about 11 minutes. These are letterboxed at 2.35:1, but they look as if they were taken from a video workprint. One of these is merely an extended version of a scene from the film. One confirms our question about whether or not Caesar (Ernest Borgnine) knew the truth about Vincent, and another has an interesting confrontation between the detectives investigating the murders. "Original Featurette" (7 minutes) is more of an electronic press-kit, as it contains many clips, some behind-the-scenes footage, and some comments from the cast, while a voice-over describes the plot. "Welcome to Gattaca" (22 minutes) is a modern featurette which explores many aspects of the film. The piece first looks at Andrew Niccol's directing style. There's a peek at the casting, and we get comments from Ethan Hawke and Jude Law. Producer Danny De Vito also comments on the cast. The production design and look of the film is next highlighted, and we see some storyboards. The sets and locations are detailed. (We learn that Columbia execs had the same issues with the ending that I did.) The speakers then look back at the film. (Andrew Niccol does not appear here.) "Do Not Alter?" (15 minutes) is a documentary which is narrated by Gore Vidal. It explores the history of the study of DNA and genetics. There are comments from many scientists. The final extra is an OUTTAKE (36 seconds) which, yes, does end the way that thinks it's going to.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long