Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Movie Review: Gattaca
While science fiction sometimes (all too often) falls on the ‘hysterical fear of the future’ side of the equation (especially in film), generally the better stuff is about cautious optimism, not fear. Gattaca thankfully does not say genetic engineering is evil, only that the abuse of it and gene sequencing could lead to problems and that we should be cautious. The retro-future style of the movie taps into that 50s style and heart. But it imagines the relations between natural birth and medically selected birth as a kind of parallel to the typically unofficial, but omnipresent, racism of that time. It also captures some of that hope for the future represented by rocket launches and space exploration.
In the film, Ethan Hawk plays natural birthed Vincent who must masquerade as another man, a man with good genes but a broken body, in order to get a job at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and have a chance to go to space. With skin, hair, urine, and other genetically tested materials on hand, he may just be able to pass for his ‘valid’ companion Jerome, played by Jude Law. In spite of his careful planning, regimented life, and superior drive, he is always in danger of being exposed as a fraud. As the film begins, a mysterious murder puts his false identity to the test. With only days until his launch, can he maintain his borrowed life, avoid suspicion for the murder, and get a date with a genetically incompatible dame played by Uma Thurman (from that brief phase where I thought she was cute)?
The visuals of the film are quite striking. Of course, many of the actors are extremely attractive, because they’re supposed to be the best and brightest, by design. But the fashion, the cars, and the interior design all have that 50s Modern thing. Smooth lines, perfect hair, classy cars, everything in polished wood and glass, sharp suits, etc. It’s like the whole movie came out of the pages of an early Playboy, or some swanky catalog. And to a degree, even the story itself, though dealing with issues becoming more obvious in the 90s, when it was made, has the feel of early Heinlein or Clarke. Still hopeful overall, but with that sense that we have a long way to go, and it isn’t all in the tech department. We need to grow as people, as a society. We need to learn how to live with the amazing things we make and discover. And though we shouldn’t fear progress, technological advancement, or scientific discovery, we must use judgment and logic in adopting and living with it. Should we engineer our children to be better? Should we manipulate out genetic disorders and hereditary faults? Do we have a right to do it? Do we have a duty to do it? I personally believe we not only should, but have an absolute duty to the future and our unborn children to make them as healthy and capable as possible. But that’s just me. Whatever we do in the future when it comes to manipulation of genetic codes, we must be cautious, do the most good and the least harm. And certainly making a society where those who are modified are a class above those who aren’t isn’t the right way to go. One’s genes are a blueprint, not the final construct. No matter what the potential is, the material has to be put together, and even the best plans can fail. This is the essential issue in the lives of Jerome and Vincent. Vincent is unaltered. He has inherited all his parents’ various genetic faults, including bad eyesight and a potential for early heart failure. Jerome is engineered to be the best at whatever he does. But while Vincent always dreamed and strived, Jerome became listless, bored, and idle. However, this doesn’t need to be the case. In a healthy society, Jerome could also have found passion for life and struggle to be forged upon. His nature (in this case, his engineered genes) simply needed nurture (encouragement to push boundaries). Look at the other candidates at Gattaca. They’re all genetically engineered, but they don’t all make the cut. Simply having the good genes didn’t guarantee success in everything. In a healthy society, it wouldn’t guarantee anything. A person’s drive and will, their merit, their passion and skills. Those are the things that matter.
This film also shows that you don’t need complicated special effects or big action scenes to make a compelling science fiction film. Don’t get me wrong. I love those things. I want to see huge spaceships flying through nebula while strange aliens battle it out in zero-G. But that’s not the only way to do it. I think there’s one brief fist fight (does one punch count as a fight?) and someone runs down an ally. That’s the extent of the action in this film. The effects? Rockets launch in the background a bunch of times. That’s about it. In spite of the lack of lavish effects, the film has a distinct and effective visual style. I’d like to see more of these thoughtful, low key, serious science fiction films that explore the dangers of ideas without condemning them. Contemplating possible dangers does not mean one has to stop trying new things. Because a technology may present problems does not mean it should be ignored, banned, or feared, only that care must be taken in using it. Science fiction serves as a perfect place to explore concepts’ pros and cons. Too often today, science fiction is used as a mouthpiece of fearful, Luddite minded fools who are predisposed to assume the worst at all times and uneducated enough to believe every conspiracy theory and reactionary blubbering. And don’t even get me started on the Revelations people. That’s a brand of crazy I can’t fathom. (Even if you accept that the Bible has any relevance, especially as a means of prophecy, which of course, I don’t, 90% of the crap those people spout isn’t even in there). Since Hal, every super-computer seems bent on the destruction of humanity. Since Khan (if not before), every genetically engineered human seems to be out for normal human blood. 99% of robots, cyborgs, uplifted animals, clones, and aliens? Same thing. Why does everything in modern sci-fi hate humanity so much? Almost certainly the post-60s guilt that has weighed us down. We started seeing the damage we’d done to the environment, to various animal species, to ourselves, and instead of saying ‘oops, let’s stop that and get on with things,’ we became consumed with self-hatred. Learn from history, lest you be doomed to repeat it. But don’t be so stuck in the past that you can’t move on. It’s written large in our literature and film, and its symptoms include the return of spiritualism and superstition, the dismissal of scientists and evidence based reasoning, and technological villains that reflect our own fears. How often to you hear that old Styx mantra, ‘machines dehumanize?’ Do they? Am I less human for typing this on a laptop? Am I less human for keeping in touch with old friends via the internet, as opposed to not communicating with them at all? Am I less human because my glasses help me see? When we could have accepted what we had done to nature, figured out ways to stop it, and redirected our collective will toward a more healthy path, we got bogged down in the blame game, scapegoating, religious tomfoolery, smug self-righteousness (vegans, I’m looking at you!), and other unhelpful behaviors that have done little to actually fix things. What reason does a super computer have to kill humanity? Why would carefully engineered crops turn people into killing maniacs? Why does a genetically superior person automatically want to kill all ‘lesser beings?’ Why would they not be superior physically, mentally, AND morally? (Colossus was right, by the way, and it did save humanity). This was a refreshing aspect of Gattaca, actually. Yes, the society presented was unhealthy, with a pseudo-racist system, but the genetically superior people were not evil, they were not bent on murdering ‘natural’ people. Jerome, for example, wished no harm on anyone but himself. Even the murder was not motivated by the differences between the biological haves and have nots. With some proper education and sensitivity training, that culture could easily be back on its way to being a healthy and profitable place for all.
At the end of the day, my crackpot philosophizing aside, Gattaca is a well crafted, quiet, style-rich science fiction drama and cautionary tale. Not amazing, but pretty good. It is not the anti-science, doom and gloom, things usually associated with more serious science fiction of latter years (Sunshine). Nor is it the explosion-heavy creativity-light sort of thing that tends to get the most play at the multiplex (Avatar). But it gives me hope that there will be more like it. And, actually, in recent years there have been more examples, from Solaris to Robot and Frank. Can some of these serve as the kinds of inspirations to young people that Star Trek and 2001 did decades ago?