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This came out in 1997, and I think I first saw it sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s. But I'm not really sure, because before I watched it in 2016 to write this review, all I remembered was the basic premise. And after watching it now, none of the details seemed familiar. So either it's something I just wanted to see before, but didn't get a chance until now, or more likely, it's further proof of how bad my memory is. Anyway, I vaguely thought that if I had seen it before, I wasn't terribly impressed by it. (But not terribly unimpressed, either.) However, when I watched it this time, I definitely liked it.
It's set in the "not too distant future." Eugenics has become commonplace, so genetic engineering is now considered the natural state of reproduction, and its products are called "Valids." Conversely, people born without genetic engineering are called "In-valids," and often face discrimination (called genoism), despite that being illegal. (Incidentally, this film made me think there's a fine line between a utopia and a dystopia; how you see the world depends on which side of that line you're on. It's an idea that I'm sure applies to lots of dystopian movies, even if I more commonly think of the term as applying to a world that everyone- or almost everyone- recognizes as bad.) Anyway, the focus of the movie is an In-valid named Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). He has a younger brother named Anton, who is a Valid. For most of their childhood, Anton seemed to be better than Vincent at everything they did, most notably the swimming contests the two of them often had against each other. But one day, Vincent won, and that made him believe he might someday attain his lifelong goal of going into space, despite his genetic inferiority.
However, regardless of practical qualifications, Vincent still faced discrimination. So he ends up spending years working as a janitor (his boss is played by Ernest Borgnine). But eventually, he goes to a man (played by Tony Shalhoub) who arranges opportunities for In-valids to purchase the identities of Valids who have fallen on hard times. So Vincent takes on the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a former competitive swimmer who is now crippled. (While watching the movie, I thought it was sort of an interesting play on words, that an "In-valid" assumed the identity of an invalid. Although the latter term is never used in the film, I couldn't help but think the pun was implied.) From this point on, Vincent lives in Jerome's home, the rent on which I guess Vincent pays for once he uses his new identity to get a job at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. (Though he used to be a janitor there, no one seems to recognize him, not even his old boss.) Even the real Jerome calls Vincent "Jerome," and Vincent calls him by his middle name, Eugene. (Speaking of middle names, Vincent's is "Anton," and the movie suggests, via Vincent's narration, that his father chose to bestow his own first name on his second son rather than his first, because he considered the second son more worthy of the name. I'm wondering now whether the real Jerome using his middle name is meant to be part of a theme, or something.) Though at first "Eugene" looks down on Vincent, eventually the two of them become friends. Anyway, Vincent has to be constantly careful not to leave any traces of his DNA behind at work. Among other things, this means scrubbing his whole body vigorously each morning, and vacuuming his computer keyboard regularly. (I really wish I had one of those little vacuums for my own computer, because the aerosol duster I have right now is almost worse than useless.) But aside from just keeping track of his own DNA, he also has to provide samples of Jerome's for frequent testing.
Then one day, Vincent/Jerome learns that he's been accepted as part of the upcoming mission to Saturn's moon, Titan. Unfortunately, shortly after that announcement, the mission director is murdered. (Actually, looking at Wikipedia now, it says the victim wasn't the director, but a Gattaca administrator. I'm not sure which of us is right, and I'm not gonna rewatch the movie to find out, so I'll just go ahead and say it was the director. Though I'm probably wrong.) That sets the schedule back a little, I think, though not too long, because there's a very limited launch window for the mission. Apparently the only clue at the scene of the crime is an eyelash, which turns out to belong to Vincent. It's identified as such, so the police detectives investigating the murder suspect the In-valid former janitor, whom no one has seen in some time. (Or rather, they think they haven't seen him.) And "Jerome" has to do whatever he can to prevent them from realizing he is that In-valid. Not just to avoid being arrested for a crime he (presumably) didn't commit, but almost more importantly so that he wouldn't lose his chance to finally go into space. Meanwhile, he also starts a relationship with another employee of Gattaca, Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), who despite being a Valid, has a heart condition. (Vincent can relate to that, but can't tell her why.) So that complicates things. Anyway, the lead detective is a Valid (played by Loren Dean, whom I know from Mumford), who seems to disagree with the investigative style of his partner (played by Alan Arkin), who (I assume) is an In-valid. For most of the movie, I kind of thought the reason Dean's character distrusted the instincts of Arkin's character was genoism. But in the end, we learn something (which maybe I should have figured out before it was revealed, but I didn't, so I'm not going to spoil it here), which made me rethink my previous assumptions about the way Dean's character wanted to investigate the case.
And that's pretty much all I want to say about the plot, except that there's a doctor named Lamar, whom we see a few times testing Gattaca employees' DNA. Most of the time I just thought he was kind of odd, and not very important to the story. But he does become more important, in the end, for a reason I won't spoil. Other than that... I just want to say that the movie presents an interesting look at a new kind of discrimination. And I think it's kind of weird that In-valids are just automatically assumed to be inferior, considering Valids themselves are technically limited by the best genes that In-valids have to offer, and long before genetic engineering existed, people were often born with desirable traits (whether it's looks, intelligence, strength, health, etc.) by chance rather than design. So that could just as easily happen after genetic engineering became the norm, too. (But hey, that's how discrimination works, regardless of what kind of people are being discriminated against. It never makes sense.) But the movie also explores the problems that bedevil Valids, who, while they have unfairly low expectations of In-valids, also have unfairly high expectations of themselves. And failing to meet their own expectations can be devastating.
Oh, I also wanted to say that one thing I really like about the future that exists in this movie, is that Pluto is apparently still considered a planet. Maybe that dates the movie, but as far as I'm concerned, it does so in a good way. Anyway... I hope I'm not forgetting anything else I wanted to mention....