GATTACA – Blu-ray review

For over a year, now, fans have been waiting for the previously announced and then shelved Blu-ray release of “Gattaca.” Well, it’s finally here . . . and with new cover art that shows a double helix spinning off of the double “T”s in the title.

That’s appropriate, of course, since “Gattaca” is an intelligent sci-fi film that thoughtfully considers what it would be like to be one of the very last “natural” humans in a world that has tipped toward genetically engineered babies. The mother of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) refused to special-order her child the way that other parents were doing in order to eliminate genes that would produce defects such as nearsightedness, heart conditions, alcoholism, high blood pressure, or any number of things that would result in a less-than-perfect human being with a less-than-phenomenal life span.

So where has genetic engineering led? Not surprisingly, to a world in which perfection is not only prized, but used as a new form of class system to privilege the best-engineered beings and discriminate against those who fall short of perfection. It’s interesting (and a big plus) that writer-director Andrew Niccol, who also penned “The Truman Show,” opted to focus on character and downplay the horror of a world like this. It’s better that he leaves it to the audience to project themselves into this futuristic landscape and decide for themselves what life would be like. Niccol seems to try his best to avoid reductive thinking, creating a world where we can see both advantages and disadvantages. But personally? I don’t think I could live in a society where thumb-pricks and syringes take blood samples to verify a person’s identification on a daily basis. Count me out.

In a world like this, if you have any ambition whatsoever, you have to find a way to beat the system that relegates you to second- or third-class citizenship. That’s exactly what Vincent Freeman (the last man “free” to choose) does. Through a black-market matchmaker he’s put in touch with a former super-being with impeccable genes who was left in a wheelchair after a freak accident–one of the few wild cards remaining in a world that pretty much tells you when and how you’ll leave this life. The disabled Jerome Morrow is nearly genetically perfect, which means he would be automatically given the top job at a place like Gattaca Aerospace, which sends astronauts into space for long periods of time. Space travel has been a dream of Vincent’s, and so the two men meet, pay the middle man his commission, and begin living together in a symbiotic relationship. Jerome gets taken care of and is supplied with all the liquor he consumes to dull the pain of his short-circuited life, while Vincent gets Jerome’s identity. But with all the blood and urine testing, it basically sets Jerome up as a little blood and urine bank, creating pouches of blood and urine on a daily basis during those windows of opportunity when the samples wouldn’t be too tainted by alcohol. Using clever means and devices, Vincent manages to use Jerome’s bodily fluids in order to gain entry into the Gattaca space program and quickly rise to the top of the flight charts.

So many sci-fi films rely on a jazzy or gimmicky production design to help “sell” the futuristic world that it’s almost refreshing that Niccol chose to go with a more understated look to match the understated plot. Make no mistake, this is a character-driven film that, as such, holds broader appeal than futurism and sci-fi usually offer. People who don’t normally gravitate toward science fiction will be drawn to this film, and that’s largely because its central issues go beyond science fiction and “Gattaca” never loses sight of the humanity that drives it. The sets look only semi-futuristic (the Gattaca building is actually the Marin County Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957!), never so in-your-face that it makes the film’s central issues seem far-removed. In addition, the bold costume design by Colleen Atwood (“Sweeny Todd”) serves as another bridge between our world and this far-flung futuristic society, because it calls to mind a style that we saw in the Forties. Who would have thought to go backward in time for a futuristic film but an Oscar-winning designer (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Chicago”)? It’s what gives “Gattaca” a timeless look and what helps us identify better with the characters.

But let’s talk about the acting. Ethan Hawke and Jude Law turn in their usual spot-on performances, though Uma Thurman seems underused as Irene, a Gattaca Aerospace worker who’s been passed over because of her own imperfections. A few more scenes with Thurman would have seemed in order, because she’s such a pivotal character for the way we perceive things–one who goes from resenting the near-perfect Vincent-as-Jerome to becoming close to him and ultimately changing her mind on more than a few things. Alan Arkin does such a good job as Detective Hugo, who’s called to Gattaca after the launch supervisor is found murdered right there near his office, that you wish he also had more camera time. But that’s another strength of this intriguing film: it leaves you wanting more, but not in an angry or feeling-cheated way.

“Gattaca” looks great in 1080p, with a crisp clean pristine picture that’s presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Black levels look great-lots of shadow detail–and there’s a pleasing 3-dimensionality that comes from extra-sharp edge detail. The only flaws I noticed were a handful of hiccups that went away almost as quickly as they appeared. Overall, a great transfer, with no noticeable compression artifacts.

I’m a PCM fan, because the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 never quite seems to match the dynamics. Dialogue drives this film, though, so almost any soundtrack has only the requirement that it match the crispness of the video, and this one does. Don’t look for much in the way of rear speaker effects or for sounds traveling across your viewing space, though. In this respect it’s a pretty tame soundtrack for a sci-fi/futuristic offering. Additional options are Portuguese and French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese, and Korean.

There’s not much in the way of extras though. A 20-minute feature (“Welcome to Gattaca” is a new-look production but covers familiar ground. The stars are interviewed, but mostly talk about their characters. Things get more interesting when they offer their two cents worth about the overall production and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but it’s still a pretty standard making-of feature. Aside from trailers (previews, really) and a gag “substance test outtake” that runs a scant minute, there are six deleted scenes (including an alternate ending) that run around 10 minutes and a vintage 2004 short-short feature that’s really a fluff promo piece and nothing more. You’d think with a film this thoughtful there’d be more from the scientific community, but the closest we come is with another short (under 20 minutes) features narrated by Gore Vidal, who has a small walk-on role in the film. Vidal, you might recall, is the arch-rival liberal to conservative William F. Buckley, and he takes up the issues that are at the core of this film. Are we closer to a Gattaca world? Yikes.

Bottom Line:
“Gattaca” has plenty of character and complex issues to consider, and the plot is just enough to provide a context and make things even more interesting. As sci-fi films go, “Gattaca” goes well beyond the usual by offering a work of real depth. And yes, it looks superb in Blu-ray.