Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: With the Hugh Jackman vehicle Reminiscence headed for theaters and streaming, we’re thinking back on other sci-fi noirs.
Gattaca is such a reserved, orderly little science fiction drama that it’s easy to miss just how many elements of film noir it contains. It’s a neat example of form following function: Just as its lead character hides behind a respectable false identity, the movie conceals its noir elements under a sterile near-future surface. Nothing looks amiss with Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a handsome and literally well-scrubbed employee of Gattaca, a private aerospace firm. He presents himself as a physically fit striver who, like his co-workers, has been genetically engineered for success, wiped of any predispositions toward health issues.
It’s not illegal, in this dsytopia, for parents to take their chances on natural-born children. But it’s not exactly advisable, either, given how many ambitious plans, like Vincent’s dreams of space travel, require a robust genetic profile. The catch here is that this seemingly fine specimen has been engaging in a long-term deception: It turns out that Vincent was conceived naturally, and has a heart condition that makes him an “in-valid,” in the brave new world’s unforgiving parlance. Everyone at Gattaca knows him as Jerome—a name and “valid” identity he’s purchased from the real Jerome (Jude Law), a former swimming champion who lost the use of his legs in an unregistered accident.
Jerome also provides various biological samples to assist with the ruse, staying out of sight as Vincent’s well-paid shadow. The movie opens with Vincent meticulously planting tiny pieces of genetic evidence around his workstation while attempting to erase any trace of his own skin or hair. When a murder occurs at Gattaca’s offices, the accompanying scrutiny threatens to blow the entire operation, just as Vincent is preparing for his dream mission and connecting with reserved fellow employee Irene (Uma Thurman).
So technically, Gattaca is a murder mystery, though the movie isn’t especially interested in whodunit; there’s an amusing lack of suspects. Writer-director Andrew Niccol doesn’t seem like a spiritual successor to noir filmmakers—at least not in the tone of his writing. Despite Vincent’s rueful assessment of his status as a second-class citizen, his temperament has more earnest (if muted) pluck, as he’s repeatedly chastised early in his life for letting his eyes drift hopefully toward the stars. Even Jerome, the movie’s most cynical character, marinates in the baby-faced self-pity of a golden boy turned underachiever; he’s resigned, but not quite as hard-bitten as a typical noir lifer.
But Niccol uses noir style to tell this endearingly dorky-at-heart sci-fi story, just as he would later with the similarly themed and impeccably styled In Time. Both films feature eye-catching costume design by Colleen Atwood, and in Gattaca, society’s genetic stars all dress up like they’re in a mid-century period picture. This future, conceived in 1997, is a weirdly stodgy one: No one seems to watch TV, and young people enjoy a hot night out watching a twelve-fingered concert pianist. It’s both ludicrous and conceptually seductive—just like the ample voiceover Niccol gives Hawke in the movie’s info-packed opening half-hour, a potentially clunky device that makes the whole story feel more convincingly personal, akin to the narration tracks in certain old noirs.
The world-building and atmosphere operate as a form of misdirection, both for the mystery at hand and the movie’s dramatic shortcomings, including a climactic decision from Jerome that comes uncomfortably close to a de facto endorsement of this new world order. Gattaca also has a workable cover-up in strong performances from Hawke, breaking from the Gen-X philosophizing that was his stock in trade back in the mid-’90s, and Law, assuming sardonic responsibilities from his co-star and smoking cigarettes in the shadows as his not-exactly-doppelgänger chases big dreams. In a roundabout way, Niccol acknowledges the selfishness of his aspirational hero. As in a lot of classic noir, the characters are trapped in a rigged system, fighting for their own freedom, knowing broader justice is out of reach.