On the surface, Gattaca might seem a bit of an odd choice for Sony to select from its catalog to give a new 4K HDR restoration and transfer. Released in 1997—meaning it missed the 20th anniversary and is a bit early for the 25th—with a reported budget of $36 million, the film only brought in $12.5 million at the box office. Even with relatively high Rotten Tomatoes critics (83%) and audience (87%) scores, and sitting at No. 22 on IMDB’s list of the top sci-fi movies of all time, the film never really gained much traction and likely wasn’t on anyone’s list of titles that needed a 4K release. However, the themes of institutional discrimination—based on genetics here rather than race—make it pretty timely for viewing, and much
of the science in this set in the “not-too-distant future” seems pretty much within grasp of our modern technology.
I generally like a dose of action with my sci-fi, but that’s not the deal here. In fact, for a sci-fi film, Gattaca has almost no action or even special effects. Instead, it relies on the strength of its premise, and succeeds by just telling an interesting, compelling, and believable story performed by a superb cast. It also has a pretty compressed timeline, with the principal action taking place over a span of just a few days (with some flashbacks to fill in story points), which keeps it moving along.
With eugenics being the principal driver of the film’s theme and plot, the title “Gattaca” comes from the letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA, being adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. In this future, all humans are genetically-typed at birth, and any inherent flaws, like a propensity for bi-polar disorder, heart conditions, and even
GATTACA AT A GLANCE
This 1997 sci-fi tale of genetic discrimination still holds up and looks great in this 4K HDR restoration.
The UHD transfer delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob the movie of its original film look.
The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack focuses most of its attention on delivering clear dialogue but also uses the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive.
a predicted lifespan, are cataloged. This information, which is stored in a national registry, follows you through life, determining what you are eligible to do. Those with any issues are considered “Invalid” and relegated to performing menial jobs, essentially locked out from being able to succeed.
To ensure children have the best options in life, genetic engineers can help with designer DNA—for a price. With these modifications, they can not only eliminate any flaws or defects to make sure children are “Valid,” they can also give them additional skills and traits to excel, and even a lengthened lifespan. But, the better the modifications, the higher the cost. DNA is the commodity in this world, and everything from dating to job interviews is based on a quick scan of one’s genetic material.
Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a natural-born child with no genetic modifications, but his genetic profile contains numerous flaws, including a 99% chance of a heart defect and an estimated lifespan of just 30.2 years. Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), on the other hand, was dealt a near-perfect genetic hand and his profile will open any door. Unfortunately, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. With help from a black-market matchmaker—and some body modifications—Vincent becomes a “borrowed ladder” and assumes Jerome’s identity. This creates a symbiotic relationship where Vincent is able to pursue his dream job due to the doors Jerome’s DNA can open—“You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix under your arm”—and Vincent uses his income to support Jerome in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. And with the interview consisting of just a single urine sample of Jerome’s “pure” DNA, Vincent lands the job at Gattaca Aerospace, where he is on track to serve as engineer on an upcoming rocket to the Saturn moon Titan—a launch window lasting just seven days that opens once every 70 years.
Vincent and Jerome go to great lengths and are fanatical about keeping Vincent’s DNA and true identity hidden. Things are going great with Vincent excelling at his position at Gattaca, but just days before the scheduled launch, a director there is murdered inside the labs and the feds are called in to investigate—a process that involves vacuuming up all genetic materials there and DNA testing all employees. When a stray eyelash identifies that an Invalid—Vincent—was inside Gattaca, he becomes the prime suspect, and Detectives Hugo (Alan Arkin) and Anton (Loren Den) doggedly pursue him. During this, Vincent falls for co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), who becomes a further piece he needs to juggle and keep his truth hidden from.
As the countdown to launch looms, and with the Feds closing in with random and more invasive genetic testing, will Vincent be caught or will he go to space?
Gattaca has a very cool and stylish look, feeling a bit noirish. Although set in the future, the vehicles, the architecture and interiors, and even technology like watch phones and DNA readers, have a retro look. The film doesn’t concern itself with trying to be too futuristic—there are no holograms, hover vehicles, or robots, which makes it easy to buy into.
Originally filmed on 35mm stock, this version is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Images are clean throughout, with just a bit of grain and noise in some scenes, like light-blue skies or some blown-out whites, and edges are nice and sharp as well.
While the movie doesn’t have the tack-sharp look of modern digitally shot movies, it delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob it of its original film look. Closeups show the pinpoint detail and stitching in clothing, or pores and whiskers on actor’s faces, less Uma Thurman, whose face looks smooth and flawless. Only one scene really jumped out—at 1:25:30, near the end of the movie, where Vincent and Irene are talking after his true identity is revealed—where the grain
was so cleaned away that images were startlingly modern-looking.
Color is also used throughout to give Gattaca its look. We have futuristic cool blues, metallics, greys, and blacks in some scenes and rich golden hues in others, especially when Vincent is looking back on his past. The HDR grade does a nice job here of delivering these colors as well as deep, clean blacks along with nice shades and rich shadow detail, and with bright highlights and punchy greens from computer monitors and screens.
Gattaca also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix, and while most of the attention is focused on delivering clear dialogue, they also used the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive. During the opening scenes, we see bits of fingernails and snips of hair falling on screen in slow motion, and these land and bounce with heavy bass thunks, and we get the delicate sounds of each hair landing and being placed exactly in space in the front of the room. The listening room also fills with little atmospherics to establish a scene, like hums inside a building, wind blowing, or machinery noise.
The height channels are used to expand the soundtrack by playing the reverb and echo from PA announcements in the Gattaca offices, or lifting music from a jazz
club or piano concerto up for a fuller presentation. The frequent rocket launches—viewed off in the distance by Vincent—also flare up into the ceiling and deliver some nice low end from your subwoofer. Another scene has Vincent crossing a very busy freeway, and the roar of traffic fills the room with the rush of cars coming from everywhere. Occasionally, this echoing and reverb of voices seems a bit overdone, such as when characters are talking inside the Gattaca offices, but it never lasts long enough to be too distracting.
Gattaca might be the perfect sci-fi film for people who aren’t really too into sci-fi. While it develops slowly and is light on action, the plot is intriguing, the acting is top-notch, and the visuals are compelling. And at just 106 minutes, it is long enough to develop its story and characters, but not too long to wear out its welcome. Also, the idea of wanting the opportunity to achieve your hopes and dreams regardless of the preconceptions others place on you—or your DNA—certainly makes Vincent a relatable character.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.