Friday, July 2, 2010

Gattaca's Giant Lump

In our ongoing quest to watch films with a little more heft than Hollywood's standard fare (much of which is about as substantive as a breakfast of Peeps), my wife and I watched 1997's Gattaca last weekend, which I hadn't seen since it'd been in theaters. It surprised me on multiple levels. Its themes on genetic determinism and the power of the will remained fresh as ever. Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman looked incredibly young (a fact whose implications for my own age and hairline I refuse to consider in greater depth). Its cinematic style, a colorful blend of a sleek SF and 1950's-era film noir, remained quite striking. But the most startling thing of all? A twenty-four-minute-long expository lump right at its beginning.

Vincent Freeman has always longed to soar to the stars. He understands stellar navigation theory backward and forward, can compete on any point of knowledge. And yet Vincent has absolutely no hope of achieving his goal. You see, Vincent is a God birth, a natural child, one conceived without genetic tinkering. As such, he's near-sighted and has a 99% chance of developing a heart condition that will kill him by age thirty. All of his smarts count for nothing once a potential employer samples a bit of his DNA, a standard the practice in competitive workforce. Vincent's only career path seems to lie in menial janitorial work, an option to which he's unwilling to submit. So he assumes the identity of a genetically superior cripple and lands a position at Gattaca Corporation, a leader in the aerospace industry. But when a director gets murdered and police descend, Vincent's entire life hangs in the balance, his fraud ready to be betrayed by a stray eyelash or errant flake of skin.

Gattaca is compelling through and through, but by laying down loads of explanation at the narrative's start, it breaks a storytelling rule laid down by no less than SF maven Ursula K. Le Guin: Avoid expository lumps. "Crafty writers (in any genre) don't allow Exposition to form Lumps,"
Le Guin states in Steering the Craft. "They break up information, grind it fine, and make it into bricks to build the story with." According to her, Gattaca's beginning should fail miserably. But it doesn't. Why? For starters, the film shows as much as it tells. We see Vincent's jealousy of his younger, genetically engineered brother when he tries to erase a line on a doorjam marking his height -- a line much lower than his sibling's. Also, the intro is achingly beautiful. Vincent gazes up longingly as a rocket's contrails slice across a rose-colored sky and peers through plate glass while reflections of the pretty, perfect people pass before him, on their way to a destination he can never hope to reach. Could one digest the exposition easier if the film's creators had mashed it up a bit? Probably. All the same, though, that lump is pretty sweet as it is.

(Picture: CC 2007 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I love Gattaca, but never thought about its initial data-dump.

Beautiful movie, though.

Chestertonian Rambler said...
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ollwen said...

Illustrates the difference between writing screen-plays or for other graphic media, like a graphic novel, and writing traditional prose fiction. The author of the novel has only one voice (at a time). Getting to watch the character's family drama while the narrator exposits, achieves the same effect as grinding up the lump and spreading it out, with the added bonus of the human effects of the premise as it is explained. In a sense he gets to tell two stories at once. Of course it takes skill to do this well for very long and maintain interest. The lump starts to taste like what it is after a while.

Loren Eaton said...


You know, I didn't notice it either the first time through. It really caught me off guard during this rewatching, though. A great movie, all the same.

Loren Eaton said...


I wish I understood some of the technical aspects of visual media (e.g. film, graphic novels) more. It's a very different method of storytelling, and the best examples really find ways to show and not tell.