A second review requested by Cammy, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There's not all that much competition, but I rather think that Gattaca is among the very best of all the original "thoughtful" sci-fi movies out there (by which I mean, not quite hard, not quite soft; "social science fiction" is a phrase I've heard thrown around, but I'm not sure how widespread it is). It's enormously literary for a movie with no direct literary antecedent, and this gets it into a little trouble here and there, particularly in the exposition. But much more than that, this quality is one of the film's best strengths; as a piece of idea-driven writing, it's directly in line with the finest speculative fiction of the mid-20th Century Golden Age, using a reasonably appealing genre plot (it's a murder mystery, at heart) as the pretext for grappling with Big Ideas about where society is, where it's going, and what that will mean for us wee tiny human beings. And so what if it's not always perfect in the execution, or if the passage of some two decades have made the 1997 film feel a little morally panicked about an ethical crisis that's not quite as right around the corner as it seemed at the time - better a film that gets lost in its own intellectual ambitions than one content to succeed at being nothing at all.

The film was the brainchild of writer-director Andrew Niccol, a New Zealand-born director of British television ads prior to making this, his feature debut (and who never really paid off the promise of this film; not as a director, anyway). It's set "in the not-too-distant future", an unfortunate turn of phrase (Mystery Science Theater 3000 had long since laid its immortal claim to that line), when prenatal genetic counseling and manipulation has reached a level of near-perfection, resulting in multiple generations of humans born with what 20th Century normals would regard as extraordinary resistance to disease, strong respiratory and cardiac systems, high intelligence, and flawless physical beauty; but to them as live in that world, it's just how things are.

Also part of how the way things are: a theoretically illegal but immutable caste system, in which the genetic superhumans get all of the complex, interesting jobs, while the standard people who still come into being, thanks to traditionalism, or accident, or what have you, are stuck with the menial shit jobs. This used to be the life lived by one "Jerome Eugene Morrow", the identity taken on by normie Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a former janitor at Gattaca, a research corporation that oversees routine space exploration missions. Vincent wanted, more than anything, to be able to go on one of these missions, but his weak heart, among other physical disorders, kept him trapped. A world like this could hardly function without a black market, however, and Vincent was able to meet up with the actual Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a championship-level swimmer who lost the use of his legs in a car accident. They've set up an arrangement whereby Vincent pays for Eugene's lifestyle, while getting use of the perfect man's perfect identity. And this puts him in the front lines for an upcoming trip to Titan, right up to the moment that Gattaca's mission director is murdered, with a solitary eyelash of Vincent's found at the scene (this despite Vincent's usually merciless care in keeping his genetic material safely secured where nobody could find it).

In theory, the wrong man thriller that thus ensues is the driving force behind everything in Gattaca: it's how Vincent ends up spending time with his co-worker Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), and thereby falling in love with her; meanwhile, the investigators on the case (Alan Arkin, Loren Dean), by virtue of trying to track down this one mysterious lead, quite inadvertently threaten to uncover Vincent & Jerome's secret. It's a good wrong man thriller, at that: the wrinkle of the wrong man being the hidden identity of a man guilty of a very different crime isn't without precedent, but it's rare enough to be special, and packaged inside sci-fi trappings, it's rarer still.

The very phrase "sci-fi trappings", though, is quite misleading. Rather than just window dressing for a routine narrative (or even an unusual one), the sci-fi is more or less the whole point. Gattaca isn't quite a fantasy, and not quite n allegorical depiction of the modern world, but an attempt to extrapolate what the future might consist of based on where we are now. It is, more than anything, a warning: a few tiny little things that sound look perfect reasonable ideas - who wouldn't want to cancer-proof their unborn baby? - and in hardly any time, we've re-instated slavery. Niccol's nervousness about this brave new world is very mid-'90s: the 1990 book and 1993 movie versions of Jurassic Park had suddenly plopped ideas like cloning and genetic engineering squarely in the mainstream of pop culture, and the year before Gattaca's release, Dolly the sheep was born as the world's first mammal cloned from an adult animal. The international Human Genome Project was in full swing. The question of whether we would start making designer babies seemed hardly worth discussing; it was only when that would become an option. In the 2010s, these questions don't seem nearly as urgent they did then - not dead, but certainly not very energetic - which has robbed Gattaca somewhat of its social commentary. Still, it plays as a pretty sharp commentary on the overruse of technological fixes, and the easy way that human culture finds new and interesting ways to split itself into upper and lower classes. There's a lot of Romantic optimism veined throughout the movie: other than the real killer, all of the characters turn out to be basically nice, and basically committed to justice and equality, once they have society's exploitative elements pointed out to them, so it's never a particularly bleak or harsh vision of the future. But it's clear-eyed about the capacity for greed, and cruelty, and the tribalist narcissism of parents who view their children as little accessories to their own lives (among the film's best grace notes comes when a doctor, bald and brown-skinned, grins with plastic enthusiasm at programming up a porcelain white hazel-eyed child with a perfect head of hair). It's too careful about foregrounding the thriller plot and the love story to turn into a harangue, but it's still smart as hell - probably Niccol's smartest screenplay, for all that I prefer his subsequent The Truman Show (which he did not direct) as a movie.

It's by no means a perfect screenplay: like a lot of sci-fi obsessed with the technology that defines its invented world, it is drunk on exposition, and has all the gracefulness that implies. In Gattaca's case, that means a big, lugubrious flashback that kicks in only minutes after the movie starts up, glumly laying out the rules of this world in charmlessly literal voiceover that survives only because of Hawke's '90s-era "sensitive boyfriend" vocal cadence (that came out a little mean: in fact, the performance as a whole is probably the most sophisticated and multilayered of any of Hawke's '90s fims without the word "Before" in the title). The worst part is that Niccol has already demonstrated, by this point, that he can set the stage through subtle visual storytelling: the first thing we see in the movie is an elaborate personal hygiene ritual, in which Vincent carefully removes every hair, nail, and bit of belly button lint that might let his telltale DNA out into the world, and it reveals plenty while outright stating nothing at all.

But this thudding mass of a flashback is close to the only misstep of any size that the screenplay makes; and even when his instincts fail him as a writer, Niccol is a pretty fantastic director, both of the image and of his cast (besides Hawke, the film boasts a very strong Thurman performance at a time when she was much less reliably great than has become the case in subsequent years; that it has a great Alan Arkin performance is maybe less shocking, but nonetheless Arkin is great, and his acerbic pulp-style line deliveries used to perfection within the movie). Above and beyond anything else, Gattaca is a great-looking movie: a lot of that comes from choosing some exceptionally savvy Modern buildings for locations, to accentuate Jan Roelf's slick, polished, pointedly lifeless production design (which received an Oscar nomination); and a lot comes from the filtered half-light of SΕ‚awomir Idziak's cinematography, giving a vague evocation of noir style without actually playing into noir tropes. It's a stifling look, that's what it is: one that is in some distinct, if muted way hostile to humans. Such hostility is, of course, the underlying reality of the world the film depicts, and it's hard to imagine the visual presentation of this story serving its moods and themes any better. It is not a film, honestly, that does much of anything to reach outside of its genre roots - Gattaca rewards you richly for liking this kind of science-fiction, but it does not try to persuade you to like it if you're not already a fan of the style - but within the confines of that genre, this is pretty damn great.