On my birthday last week, I watched Gattaca. I’d heard great things, with some online even claiming it as their favorite science fiction film. Many highlighted the fact that it was “real” science fiction, focusing on a very human story in the context of imagined developments in scientific technology.
It wasn’t for me. And I’m not sure that the reason it wasn’t for me is the fault of the film itself. Many of my objections to it seemed more to do with my own petty aesthetic preferences. The cinematography was often beautiful, but the overuse of sepia-tone bugged me. The story was indeed human and deeply mired in ethical considerations, but the fact that the world wasn’t built out enough for me to understand why Vincent sees space travel as his destiny bugged me. The voiceovers were well-written and provided necessary exposition, but mixed with the musical score (also good, on paper) came off cheesy, almost like Remember the Titans in space. Everything felt dated to me, which is perfectly understandable: the film came out in 1997, after all.
There was one moment, however, that I can definitely say ruined the movie for me. Taking that moment into consideration alongside the date of the film’s release has been helping me understand the weird beef I seem to have with Gattaca. Here it is. Roughly a third of the way through the film, one of Vincent’s coworkers is found murdered. It’s a key plot point, and I’m not going to say much about it here; go watch the movie if you haven’t seen it. What is so vexxing and ultimately the jenga piece that, for me, topples the entire film, is the method used to carry out this murder. The man is beaten to death with a computer keyboard.
I’m going to put aside the obvious, though still annoying, observation that I’ve never once interacted with a computer keyboard structurally capable of that kind of damage. It’s science fiction, after all. What is so frustrating is how ham-fisted the metaphor is within a film that purports to be asking serious ethical questions about scientific / technological advancements. It’s like the film is trying to wink at me as it points to the computer keyboard, saying: “See, technology can be bad actually!” It’s so overbearingly literal.
And its not the only moment like that. Consider when Vincent learns that one of the cops that has been pursuing him happens to be his long-lost brother (another head-scratchingly unbelievable plot-point that I won’t spend much time on). He challenges his brother to one more swimming competition. Worse, swimming competitions are, multiple times, how Vincent mediates his anxieties related to genetic testing. The film is human to a fault, in the sense that human would try to respond to genetic testing by swimming or lifting a heavy rock or something, and another human would rightly say: “Wow, what a dumbass.”
But again, let me double back and say that I think the reason I don’t like this film resides in my own (potentially unfair) aesthetic preferences. Gattaca came out in a sci-fi era where, like many other films, it was arguably overshadowed by the cultural dominance of The Matrix. And The Matrix, just to lay my cards on the table, is one of my favorite films and likely colors my expectations for movies that question the relationship between humans and technology.
Whereas The Matrix is a thoroughly post-modern film, questioning the very “source code” of our sense of self and the world around us, Gattaca feels like it leaves those questions on the table even as it poses daunting ethical concerns about technology. For me, the most interesting question is always the question of self: who are you, and are you that, really? Films like The Matrix or even World on a Wire (which is better than The Matrix, by the way) are engaging and thought provoking in their constant deferral of an answer. Gattaca is like: “I’m Vincent, goddammit, and I’m going to space!”
Okay, I’m whining, I’m comparing random movies–let me quit while I’m behind here. Again, despite my petulance above, I don’t think it was a bad movie; it just wasn’t for me. There’s an idea floating in my head about the differences between postmodernist tendencies in sci-fi versus modernist ones. I’ll have to think about it more.
Feel free to shoot me a message with thoughts / comments about how I’m wrong, why Gattaca rules, etc. I’ve just gotten Satoshi Kon’s Tropic of the Sea and Lamarre’s The Anime Machine in from the library on loan, so next week I’ll be back with some less-critical, more researched posts on anime.