What happens to the average person when genetic engineering becomes the way of the world? That is a question writer/director Andrew Nicol wanted to answer when he made Gattaca in 1997. Ethan Hawke plays the role of Vincent Freeman. Born on the wrong side of the genetic engineering bubble. His life, the equivalent of a dice roll while his younger brother was given loaded dice. Forced to grow up in the shadow of his baby brother Anton, who was worthy of carrying his father’s name. Vincent grew tired of mediocrity and abandoned his family in order to pursue his dreams.
There are no laser guns, no androids and no flashy special effects. Gattaca is a sci-fi film rich in its simplicity. I would describe it as a futuristic noir. Vincent’s journey is full of turmoil. He teams up with the genetically enhanced, but crippled Jerome Eugene Morrow played by the relatively unknown Jude Law. It was one of Law’s first big roles and he garnered critical acclaim for his performance, launching his career to the next level. Uma Thurman plays Vincent’s love interest and co-worker. The three of them struggle to live the lives they want, all battling the notions of fate and destiny along the way.
Although it’s set in the not so distant future, the costume design and art direction are more reflective of the 1950s. It received an Academy Award nomination for its achievement in art direction. Sara Burton’s work as location scout combined with Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography give the movie its futuristic style and feel while managing to deliver a retro nostalgia. Burton went uncredited but I would say her work was one of the most important aspects of the film. There are some beautiful filming locations in southern California around the campus of Cal Poly Pamona, the iconic Forum in Inglewood, and the solar panel array at Kramer Junction.
Gattaca was not a box office success and I doubt it was made to earn. I remember the rest of my family walking out of the theater on it. However, it did raise serious questions about the role of predestination and genetic manipulation. It was only a year later in 1998 that cell biologists would derive the first human embryonic stem cells. This discovery was controversial and a large portion of the population found the research to be in conflict with their religious beliefs. During George W Bush’s presidency, he banned federal funding for the research of stem cells via executive order. In response, some scientists began working on developing stem cells that don’t require human embryos. In 2006, a Nobel Prize was awarded for breakthroughs in stem cell research.
Genetic manipulation has already trickled into food production and will continue to be researched for its potential to help cure disease and save lives. Gattaca raised many questions about how genetic research and manipulation fit into society, along with the personal impact of developing such technologies.