Some say that biology is destiny. But suppose it wasn't God or Fate that set that destiny. Suppose science did. Suppose we lived in a world where we could be programmed with our potential neatly mapped out for us at the moment of conception.
Vincent Freeman lives in such a world. In a future society, parents "choose" (pressured into choosing is more accurate) the best characteristics of health, beauty and intelligence to give their children the best chance in life. Unfortunately, Vincent was conceived the old fashioned way in the back seat of a car, not in a Petri dish. This means that he's part of the new underclass of "invalids" (as opposed to "valids"); people whose unimproved DNA marks them as unworthy of the opportunities of the genetically superior. Desperate to prove himself by going into space, Vincent connects with a black marketeer who pairs him with Jerome Morrow, a genetically perfect man who fell on hard times when he broke his back in a car accident. With Jerome providing urine and blood samples, Vincent takes on Jerome's identity and lands a job with the prestigious Gattaca corporation, who are preparing an expedition to the moons of Saturn. Everything seems to be going well until a week before the launch when a senior executive is found with his head bashed in and the police find a hair from an invalid on the premises–one of Vincent's hairs.
Gattaca isn't that well remembered these days. It has a very slow, rhythmic pace that disappoints audiences expecting a slam-bang sci-fi adventure. It's also one of those very serious films where no one smiles except wryly and no one makes a joke except with grim irony. After a slow set up where we're introduced to Vincent, his genetically superior brother Anton, and Vincent's situation where a mere blood test is enough to condemn him to life as a janitor, the film then turns into a procedural as Vincent moves in with the permanently depressed and drink-sodden Jerome. We see Vincent "become" Jerome by means as simple as contact lenses to match his officially recorded eye colour and as harrowing as Vincent having his legs stretched several inches so he matches Jerome's official height. Every day Jerome provides blood samples, skin samples, hair and bags of urine that Vincent conceals on his person to get past the ever present genetic scanners. Vincent becomes a clean freak as he obsessively scrubs his skin and washes his hair to get rid of any traces of his true identity. We also see the dangerous complication of Vincent becoming involved with Irene Cassini, a valid who is drawn to him, but suspects his secret.
We can't help wondering why Vincent puts up with all of this. The world he inhabits is sterile and lifeless. The only beauty anyone seems to appreciate is that of technology. Why watch a sunrise when you can watch a field of solar panels greeting the new day? What is he trying to do? Outdo his brother, who turns out to be the head detective on the murder investigation? Beat the system? Escape this opressive society? It's often unclear.
What is clear is the irony of the world of Gattaca. It's ruled by an elite of supermen who aren't actually supermen. Each day the genetically inferior Vincent matches their performance and often exceeds them. The only thing the vailds have is an in-built ID card that entitles them to rule. It's rather as if a new aristocracy has emerged that uses a genome instead of a family tree to prove their right to power. And, not surprisingly, it's a credential that proves less valid than a landed gentleman's and much more restricting as the supermen are actually afraid of surpassing their prescribed potential while Vincent is willing to go to reckless lengths to exceed his that came at the role of the dice.
Not a perfect film, but with perfectly pitched performances, a hypnotic score and a paced direction that is almost like watching a policeman walking a long beat, Gattaca is that rare commodity; an adult science fiction story where adult doesn't mean adolescent.