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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a Spanish glosa, which is a form that takes a quatrain from an existing poem and answers or explains it, using each line in the quatrain as the final line in each of the new poem’s four stanzas. I ignored the form’s usual ten-line stanza in favor of imitating the original poem; in my case, I used the third stanza from “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, which has a short tale of crushing expectation that went well with this film.)

We praised a man geneticists had blessed,
His silver spoon from birth still carrying.
His wealth was how he outshone all the rest,
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—

His skin was flawless, health beyond compare,
With only confidence upon his face.
He seemed at home and happy anywhere
And admirably schooled in every grace:

He had been bred to evermore excel,
In sport and science, art and book and string.
He barely seemed to try, and he did well;
In fine, we thought that he was everything.

But then the fateful day arrived to shock:
Our hero came in second in a race!
How had we fools allowed this laughingstock
To make us wish that we were in his place?

MPA rating:  PG-13

Science fiction is so often associated with massive spaceships, alien invaders, time travelers, and robot dystopias that it can be easy to overlook the more understated entries in the genre. Gattaca, the debut feature of Andrew Niccol, is a prime example of speculative fiction, presenting a believable vision of a world that’s taken some societal vice or virtue to an extreme. In this case, the search for perfection has led to unbridled eugenics, allowing mankind to literally breed its flaws away, for the privileged anyway.

A young Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, the product of a natural birth or “In-Valid” whose projected probability of heart failure and mental problems immediately labeled him a failure from the delivery room. Dreaming of going to space despite never being able to physically qualify for such a high-value career, Vincent is connected with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a Valid whose near-perfect genetics do him little good since he’s in a wheelchair. Taking on Jerome’s identity via borrowed blood, urine, and DNA samples, Vincent fakes his way into the space program of Gattaca and seems poised to make his dream a reality until a murder on the premises results in his former identity becoming the prime suspect.

Niccol’s other work like The Truman Show and In Time (a film I enjoyed more than most) prove how skilled he is at setting determined protagonists against a system stacked against them, and Gattaca falls into that same mold. While it glosses over the rampant abortion necessary for this eugenics dystopia, there are a host of themes at play as Vincent rebels against his assigned potential:  the limitations of science in determining a person’s worth without regard for effort, the pressure on those who have every reason to excel and somehow still fall short, the risks of taking screening procedures and only-the-best scrutiny too far, the quiet desperation of those who don’t approve of a system but feel too powerless to change it.

All of these themes play out while also keeping the murder mystery intriguing as two detectives (Loren Dean, Alan Arkin) rely on advanced DNA testing to track down the killer. Vincent’s clever efforts to conceal his true identity add to the tension, and his camaraderie with the real Jerome grows deeper with time as Jerome adopts Vincent’s dream as his own to an extent, even encouraging him to keep going when continuing their shared fraud gets riskier. Uma Thurman as Vincent’s love interest doesn’t have much to do, but she illustrates her own burdens of self-consciousness.

Gattaca is one of those films that deserves the clichéd accolades about “the triumph of the human spirit.” Michael Nyman’s score is subtly majestic and lump-inducing at key moments, and Vincent’s journey becomes a well-earned inspiration by the end. Despite warm reviews, it’s one more sci-fi winner that failed at the box office and deserves so much more attention than it got. Still, the film has already made an impact on the public perception of the potential prejudices of genetic engineering. From the advent of technologies like CRISPR to the danger of “common-sense” biases, its themes continue to be relevant twenty-five years later.

Best line: (Vincent) “They have got you looking so hard for any flaw that after a while that’s all that you see.”

Rank:  List-Worthy

© 2022 S.G. Liput
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