The problem with Gattaca is this: - a miserable, cold-ly dispassionate setting is no excuse for making a miserable, coldly dispassionate film. The whole thing is so thoroughly blue-lit, so designed to gleaming cinematic perfection that it's hard to care about anyone or what they say or feel or do. In fact, the only fleshed-out, wonderfully cynical and roundedly human character (played by Jude Law) gets such a rough deal all the way through that you leave the cinema appalled that writer/director Andrew Niccol could have done something so incredibly nasty to one of his creations.
The core of Gattaca is the purest kind of sci-fi - - a credible extension of what you've read or seen on TV that makes you wonder which bits are real and which are made-up. If you've heard about Dolly the cloned sheep or DNA-tested individuals being turned down for life insurance because of their wonky genes, then the world of Gattaca sounds just minutes into the future.
The problem for central protagonist Vincent (Hawke) is that he's just an ordinary bloke, who's a bit shorter than average, needs to wear glasses and is from a family line with a rumbling history of heart trouble. Only in his time, being normal simply isn't good enough, as everyone else had all their genetic flaws ironed out at the conception stage. So while he's averagely healthy, slightly more intelligent and an okay sort of bloke, everyone else in the job market has been produced to be all they can be - bronzed Adonises bathed in golden sunlight who are pumped out like Play-Doh figures. Consequently, he's never been able to get good education, health insurance or a decent job because he has a slightly higher than normal chance of dying young.
So what he does is pretend he's someone else, someone more worthy, someone more likely to be accepted into the space programme. In an illegal deal, he teams up with Jerome (Jude Law) - - an Olympic swimmer who feels bad about never winning gold, and whose laboratory-buffed shiny-happy genes and ox-strength heart couldn't stop him from being run over and paralysed.
Thus begins a sombre odd-couple pairing, with Jerome wheeling about his stark laboratory providing skin and hair samples for Vincent to scatter about his workplace in a bid to thwart random tissue sampling, urine bags for Vincent to squirt into test tubes and blood specimens to allow Vincent to pass the daily entrance security check. All the while, faith-birth Vincent lives upstairs (linked by the oh-so-literal swirling helix DNA staircase), gawps at beautiful co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), and financially supports the both of them while pursuing his astronaut dreams.
Now this is all strange and compulsive viewing - - but it isn't the main story. And Vincent's romance with Irene is great too, as it's complicated by her shameful admission of being less-than-perfect and him having to hide his own shortcomings. The flashbacks to Vincent's struggles against his perfect brother are intriguing - - but they're not the main story either. What binds the entire thing together is a dumb workplace murder that threatens to reveal Vincent's true identity when the police hoover the place for genetic evidence and find one of his eyelashes at the scene. Apart from providing the threat to Vincent's duplicity, the entire murder thing's so hokey, and so badly wound up that this whole plot strand seems to have wandered in from an entirely different movie.
The film's bursting with ideas and talent, and Niccol is going to go onto bigger and better things. But this smacks of first-time director's movie - - it tries to be different and innovative and odd for every second of its running time, yet forgets to be plain old entertaining, as if the notion were just too boring to bother with. A near-miss then, although, judging by the skill with which Gattaca's made, Niccol's next one promises to be a blinder.