Viewer Guide: Gattaca and Breakable You

January 24, 2020 | Richard Peña


Gattaca (1997)

This week’s classic is Gattaca, a 1997 a science fiction drama directed by Andrew Niccol.

Set in the unspecified future, Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, smart and ambitious, yet also seriously underemployed, working as a janitor at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, a space travel conglomerate launching missions to the farthest reaches of the known universe. Vincent gazes longingly at the rocket ships as they blaze into the sky, wishing he was one of the elite astronauts embarking on an intergalactic mission. But the reason that Vincent can’t ever hope to join their ranks has nothing to do with his intelligence or economic status. Remember, this is the future, and Vincent is categorized as an “in-valid,” or in other words, a traditional human being conceived the usual way. But in the world of Gattaca, only humans who have been “planned” with the aid of genetic selection—those categorized as “valids”—are able to qualify for upper echelon careers. Moreover, Vincent’s genetic profile predicts the likelihood of a heart condition and a total lifespan of only 30.2 years. After their “disappointment” with Vincent, his parents decided to genetically plan the birth of his brother Anton, inevitably creating an intense rivalry between the two.

Although he may be an in-valid, Vincent’s willpower is something you can’t put in a test tube, and he eventually undertakes an elaborate masquerade with the help of Jerome Morrow, a former champion swimmer played by Jude Law, now confined to a wheel chair after a car accident. Successfully creating the illusion of the necessary genetic perfection to be trained as a navigator for an upcoming mission, Vincent seems to have beat the system, until the brutal murder of a mission administrator forces everyone to “go under the microscope” for investigation, jeopardizing both Vincent’s true identity as well as his hard-won career dreams.

Also co-starring is Uma Thurman as one of Vincent’s co-workers who surprisingly turns out to be less than perfect herself, as well as Loren Dean as the detective hot on Vincent’s trail. And in cameo roles, be on the lookout for Alan Arkin, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub and Gore Vidal.

After an early career directing commercials in the UK, New Zealand native Andrew Niccol made his feature film debut with Gattaca, which was originally titled The Eighth Day; however, due to the US release of the 1996 Belgian film with the same title, Niccol opted to proceed with simply Gattaca, which in addition to being the name of the space flight corporation Vincent works for is also an acronym derived from the initial letters of the genetic sequence that is present in every human—guanin, adenine, thymine and cytosine. For the film’s retro-futuristic look, Niccol opted for a mid-century, conservative style rather than a more fantastic “Jetsons” design which would have rapidly become dated. The various southern California locations included the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center, with the odd-sounding PA announcements heard in the background spoken in Esperanto.

Sadly, the film was not a box office success at the time of its release, but over the years it has acquired a cult following as a prominent cinematic example of “biopunk,” a sci-fi sub-genre exploring the fringes of biotechnology. The film also strikes a provocatively ambivalent tone on the controversial practice of genetic engineering: while on the one hand, utilizing genetic selection to prevent “social undesirables” is clearly dangerous and reprehensible, one can imagine acceptable uses of this technology, such as in the prevention of chronic health conditions like heart disease and cancer. And with the world of Gattaca already so close to our present day reality, such questions should no longer be discussed only within the safe confines of fantasy or science fiction.


Breakable You (2018)

This week’s indie is Breakable You, a 2018 drama directed by Andrew Wagner.

Tony Shalhoub stars as Adam Weller, a New York City playwright who at first glance seems to have all the trappings of a successful career. But a closer look quickly reveals that Tony has weathered some major mid-life struggles, including the dissolution of his 35-year marriage to Eleanor, a Manhattan therapist played by Holly Hunter. While the two still talk, it’s not exactly what you could call a cordial relationship. And Tony’s daughter Maud, played by Cristin Milioti, has turned out to be a handful due to her recurring bouts with clinical depression. But the biggest concern for the distinctly self-centered Tony is the gnawing fear that his greatest playwriting achievements may already be behind him. With his recent plays flopping with critics and ignored by audiences, Tony’s creative inspiration is at a low ebb, which makes the interview request he’s received to discuss the acclaimed work of his now deceased best friend—and former playwriting rival—all the more irritating. But when his friend’s widow uncovers the manuscript of her dead husband’s play long thought to have been destroyed, Tony is steadily drawn into Faustian bargain with himself to revive his dwindling prospects.

Also featured in supporting roles are Alfred Molina as Tony’s brother, Omar Metwally as Maud’s reluctant romantic interest and Brooke Adams as the widow of Tony’s old friend.

Based on the 2006 novel by Brian Morton, Breakable You has a clear affinity with the universe of Woody Allen in its portrait of a rarefied milieu of New York City intelligentsia. But it also evokes the cinematic universe of Alfred Hitchcock, depicting a protagonist who’s confronted with an ethical choice, only to eventually succumb to his own weakness, bringing to mind Hitchcock classics like Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder. Yet like the scenario dramatized in Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: if  no one other than your daughter, your ex-wife and presumably God “knows” about your crime, are there really no moral repercussions in the end? Director Andrew Wagner had previously adapted another Brian Morton novel for the movies in 2007, Starting Out in the Evening, which also focused on a blocked writer, featuring Frank Langella as an aging novelist struggling against fading inspiration.

©2020 WNET All Rights Reserved.   825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019