Writer-director Andrew Niccol emerged from a career in commercials with his 1997 film Gattaca, a science-fiction tale set in "the not-too-distant future." The New Zealand-born auteur has never broken through as a star director, but has quietly built a reputation as a smart artist who inspires loyalty from his actors (Ethan Hawke and Al Pacino have each taken roles in two of Niccol's four films). Gattaca arguably remains the most assured of Niccol's films to date; depicting what happens when civilization gets "discrimination down to a science," the film proves to have the storytelling integrity and thoughtful themes of a good novel.
Hawke stars as Vincent Freeman, a naturally conceived young man (a.k.a. "faith birth")in a time when genetic engineering is the norm. Designer DNA can ensure no children with fates sealed by disease, but it also allows parents creepily to select physical and cosmetic traits for their offspring. The trend has also led to illegal but widespread discrimination ("genoism") against humans like Vincent. To achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut, Vincent leaves his old life behind and resorts to becoming a "ladder borrower," meaning that he adopts the identity of someone with genetically engineered DNA.
The process includes daily exfoliation to minimize trace evidence and wearing a false fingertip and hidden catheter to fool scans and urine tests. But when a murder takes place at his job site, the heat is on for Vincent: a stray hair means an "In-Valid" with his face has become prime suspect number one. Meanwhile, he must troubleshoot Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), the alcoholic invalid (catch the pun?) providing Vincent's false identity via blood and urine, and Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), the co-worker developing suspicion and romantic feelings for Vincent.
Niccol easily builds a strong rooting interest in Vincent, a dreamer trying to beat the odds. The cast is fine through and through, with Law making a strong impression in his first American film. Alan Arkin and Loren Dean play too "Hoovers" (or "J. Edgars") who literally suck up evidence, and Niccol likewise proves clever with his use of spiral staircases to evoke DNA (the film's most suspenseful scene finds Law torturously climbing one with only the use of his upper body). The pleasingly eccentric supporting cast also includes Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub, Blair Underwood, Xander Berkeley, Jayne Brook, Elias Koteas, and (don't blink!) Maya Rudolph.
Niccol opens the film with a Biblical quotation weighed against one by medical ethicist Willard Gaylin. Though the dramatic vehicle is diverting in its own right while exploring Vincent's family issues and desire to be reborn, it's the film's deeper scientific and social implications that give it power and continued relevance. Since the notion of genetic tampering has hardly gone away, Gattaca is ripe for reappraisal.
In building its case for Blu-Ray, Sony is wise to turn out discs like Gattaca: Special Edition. The film's presentation is fantastic, head and shoulders above any previous edition, and though the disc's extras aren't definitive (Andrew Niccol isn't involved), new bonus features are added incentive to double-dip on home video.
I can't complain about the video and audio quality here: aside from a stray speck or two in the transfer, the picture is accurately detailed with brilliantly rendered color, and the film sounds as it should. primary among the new bonus features is "Welcome to Gattaca" (22:00), a documentary in full high-def that brings together new interviews with Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, producer Danny DeVito, editor Lisa Churgin, production supervisor Bradley Cramp, first assistant director John Woodward, location manager Bob Craft, assistant location manager Ilt Jones, and visual effects supervisor Chris Watts, who comments over a bit of storyboard-to-film comparison. The doc gives a clear sense of the challenges that faced the production in telling a futuristic story on a budget, and how they were overcome by absent director Niccol.
Also new, the featurette "Do Not Alter?" (14:52) gives a brief history of genetic studies narrated by cast member Gore Vidal (now why wasn't he interviewed?). The disc also includes all of the previously available features save for the original trailer (sigh--would this take up so much space?). The original featurette (6:52) is a standard Electronic Press Kit with a few words each from Hawke, Law, and Uma Thurman.
Also on hand are six deleted scenes (10:43 with a "Play All" feature) and one "Substance Test Outtake" (:36) that finds actor Xander Berkeley in a silly mood. The deleted scenes are "Hard Walls," "Farewell to Caesar," "Eighth Day Center," "Mission Briefing," "Investigator Exposed," and "Coda." All are interesting viewing, though they prove that the film has just the right amount of Ernest Borgnine as it is. Most interesting is the coda, which would have ended the film with a survey of famous people who presumably would never have been born in a genetically hypersensitive society.
Lastly, Sony includes previews for Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, The Company, Damages—Season One, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Dragon Wars, and the promo for "Blu-Ray Disc is High Definition!" Science-fiction buffs will certainly want to add Gattaca to their collections, and fans of the film will be pleased to see the film looking spiffier than ever.
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