Ambitious science-fiction films tend to age two ways: like fine wine, or like chicken salad left out in the sun. In that respect, history has been kind to Gattaca, Andrew Niccol's 1997 writing and directing debut. Eleven years later, genetic engineering remains a hot topic, and the film's fussy production design remains classic yet timeless, with its chilly grays, blacks, and blues, heavenly sunburst golds, and sleek, metallic surfaces lacking even the faintest trace of human warmth. It's a world borrowed largely from previous science-fiction classics, an icy, minimalist universe Niccol never quite manages to make his own.
Ethan Hawke stars as a doomed "natural birth" in a genetically engineered near future where those who haven't been scientifically enhanced qualify as second-class citizens with limited prospects. Hawke dreams only of traveling to space, an occupation his lowly birth renders virtually impossible. So he borrows, at a steep cost, the identity of Jude Law, a wheelchair-bound alcoholic who has thoroughly squandered the privileges that come with being born a genetically engineered superman. A distressingly robotic Uma Thurman co-stars as Hawke's co-worker and love interest. Together, Hawke and Thurman generate enough sexual chemistry to power a small nightlight for several seconds, while doing nothing to disprove the conventional wisdom that offscreen paramours invariably make the worst onscreen lovers.
Niccol writes juicy supporting roles for Alan Arkin as a dogged shamus in a snappy fedora, and Law as a self-loathing aristocrat luxuriating in bitterness and ennui. But there's a fatal charisma vacuum at the film's center. Gattaca burdens an overmatched, miscast Hawke with a solid half-hour of unwieldy, overwritten voiceover early on, and his stilted delivery makes it even clumsier. Hawke's reputation has lately been on the rise, following impressive turns in Before Sunset, Training Day, and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, but Gattaca serves as a reminder of how wooden the Gen-X poster boy could be. Hawke's mania for visiting the stars is played for maximum schmaltz, and the film's fusion of Kubrickian detachment and Spielbergian sentimentality is unpalatable and inert. Just because a film explores a world where science works to eliminate the flaws that make us human doesn't mean it should look and feel like it was made by androids.
Key features: Fawning featurettes, a dry documentary on DNA narrated by supporting player Gore Vidal, and a mixed bag of deleted scenes.