[box cover]


Columbia Tristar Home Video
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law,
Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, Gore Vidal,
and Ernest Borgnine
Written and Directed by Andrew Niccol

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I'll admit it. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi movies. There. I said it.

That doesn't mean that I don't like science fiction. One of my favorite novels of all time is William Gibson's Neuromancer, and I grew up enjoying the books of Jules Verne. But sci-fi as a film genre constantly disappoints me, mostly because Hollywood studios shun everything that makes sci-fi so compelling — the futurism that throws our contemporary world into defamilarized relief, the investigation of the individual's place in a society that often demands concessions be made to the collective, the moral issues that arise when our capacity for science surpasses our capacity for ethics. That's sci-fi. But when a film comes out now and claims to be "sci-fi," full of sound and fury yet signifying nothing, I tend to avoid it like watered-down scotch.

Hence, I ignored Andrew Niccol's excellent Gattaca when it first arrived in the theaters, racking it up in the back of mind as another one of "those" films. When I finally decided to rent the DVD, I was shocked. Gattaca is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and it shares company with a handful of laudable sci-fi classics, among them Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gattaca succeeds for a number of reasons, foremost being the story. Gattaca feels more like a classic sci-fi novel than a sci-fi movie because of its relentless desire to explore the potential of human civilization — in this case, our potential to manipulate genetics. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a "faith birth," a child of the near future who is regarded as a social inferior because his parents chose not to take advantage of the genetic manipulation of embryos that, while expensive, is common. Because of this, he suffers a number of genetic "defects," among them poor eyesight. He also has a weak heart, and is not expected to live past the age of 30.

But Vincent is a young man who — like many great fictional heroes — decides to fight the society to which he is held in subservience. Vincent dreams of flying into space as a member of the elite Gattaca, a corporation that conducts regular manned missions to distant planets. After leaving home as a teenager, Vincent become a drifter and laborer, all the while hiding his intense fitness regimen and his independent study of astronomy and interplanetary travel. Eventually he is introduced by a black-market surgeon (Tony Shaloub) to Jerome (Jude Law), who is a "valid," a genetically enhanced former swimmer who is now a paraplegic due to an accident. Vincent becomes a "borrowed ladder" for Jerome and enters Gattaca as a navigator, smuggling bodily fluids and dead tissue from Jerome on his person in order to pass security checks. But then everything threatens to go wrong, and the story is nothing less than mesmerizing right up to its final moments.

Gattaca also succeeds because of crisp editing and gorgeous shot composition, all overseen by its writer/director, New Zealander Andrew Niccol. This future earth is rendered in dim colors that occasionally seem monochromatic. The inside of Gattaca itself is brilliant concoction, a futuristic ivory tower devoid of windows that keeps the "valids" in and the "invalids" out. The Gattaca campus is awash in irony, since it hardly provides us with what we might have imagined. It is not exciting, glamorous, adventurous. Rather, it is lifeless and sterile. All Gattaca employees sit rank-and-file, face forward, and they rarely interact. That Vincent should dream of working for such an organization — a simulacrum of the lifeless, regimented corporate America that so many of us seek to avoid — only demonstrates how much he is willing to endure in order to travel into space.

Among my many initial reservations about Gattaca, a few had to do with the two leads, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. As a rule, I am wary of movie stars who are on more magazine covers than their number of films warrant, and I am especially wary of the actor or actress who is supposed to have "indie cred." But I found Hawke's performance to be very compelling, while Uma Thurman, as Irene, presented herself as a Gattaca employee who, on the surface, appears to have been sufficiently dehumanized. I was just as pleased with the supporting cast. Alan Arkin is a choice supporting player in Hollywood (cf. Glengary Glen Ross, Grosse Pointe Blank ), and his performance as Investigator Coldspring in Gattaca is no exception. Loren Dean is good as his stonefaced superior, who, along with Arkin, begins to close in on Vincent's real identity. Gore Vidal — who has only appeared in a handful of films while continuing his day job of writing big, fat books — is just right as Director Josef. And seeing a movie veteran like Ernest Borgnine still acting is bound to bring a smile to the face of every cinema buff. But most pleasing was Jude Law as the defeated, defiant Jerome. I had never seen him in a film before, but after seeing Gattaca, I eagerly await his next project.

The video transfer of Gattaca is as good as DVD gets. The widescreen version has a lush, smooth quality on the Trinitron. While there are few hot colors in the film, I found no evidence of color bleeding. The transfer also appeared artifact-free, and the source material was completely free of flecking or grain.

The 5.1 audio mix of Gattaca is also excellent. While directional effects are rare, I would say that this is one of the best 5.1 mixes I have heard to date just because it is so atmospheric. The sound of the ocean is enveloping, and the electric cars whir past with great rushes of noise. The interiors of Gattaca are subtly but effectively mixed, with whispered conversations coming out of the rear channels and a touch of echo added to every voice, footstep, and heartbeat. However, I did note one audio drop-out in the left channel for a few seconds (at the end of the piano recital), which was disappointing, and which caused me to deduct points from my audio score.

Gattaca comes on a double-sided, single layered disc with widescreen and pan-and-scan versions on alternate sides. The extras are enjoyable, and an additional surprise since this release is from Columbia Tristar, a home video division that, up to this time, did not have a reputation for loading up a disc with extra helpings. A trailer and short promo documentary are included, along with still shots of the sets, actors, and movie posters. Seven deleted scenes are included, mostly in lo-res "dailies" video. It's enough to slap the words "Special Edition" on the packaging. I don't know why Sony didn't.

— RW

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