Gattaca (1997)

(In theaters, October 1997) Very cold, but at the same time very interesting SF movie for the high-IQ segment of the movie-going audience. No aliens, no laser pistols, no gee-whiz machinery, no impressive special effects. In other words, the words are important. That’s why it failed at the box-office and that’s why it’s the best SF movie of 1997 along with Contact. Like the latter, it’s an ultimately uplifting tale of human determination and of unusual style. Never mind that the setup is ridiculous, that the story is of early-sixties written-SF vintage and that the instant-blood-test is already obsolete: “There is no gene for the human spirit” says the tagline, and that’s exactly the gist of the movie. This being said, I can understand why less sophisticated viewers would consider this dreadfully boring. That’s good news: for once, a movie doesn’t have to pamper to the illiterate, MTV-afflicted hordes in order to fashion a satisfying movie. I hope director Nichols makes more movies like this.

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): I remembered how great this film was, but I didn’t remember how much of its greatness it owes to its mesmerizing design sense. Because, let’s face it, from a story telling standpoint this is a hollow shell: It stops dead with exposition during its first thirty minutes, takes place in a South California simulacrum with no relation to reality, features amazingly stupid detective “work”, and hobbles from one repetitive situation to another, always playing on the same suspense of discovery. Almost all of its emotional power works by allusions and not demonstration: All the characters seem frozen, and it’s easy to claim that the film’s deeper emotional interest only appeal to space nerds. And let’s not speak of the science. Still: I watched the film in a trance-like state, amazed at the visual design, the mixture of styles, the fairyland stiffness of the world. It’s a fable much more than a science-fiction film, and it truly delivers on its premises when seen as such. For a film that doesn’t survive any degree of scrutiny, it’s still unbelievably convincing. In fact, it uses its own limits as a shield of sorts, and effortlessly evokes the mythical whereas a more realistic approach would have moored it in the past: You can still see it twelve years later and it hasn’t aged a bit. What an achievement. The “Superbit” DVD looks nice, but what this film needs is a special edition with supplements that do justice to the film.

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