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`Gattaca' has great plot but lacks human emotion

We have seen the future, and it's awfully stark . . . according to movies, anyway (beginning with the silent "Metropolis").

But none has been more flattened out than "Gattaca," a cautionary tale from first-time writer-director Andrew Niccol about genetic engineering.It's the "not-too-distant future" when young Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is conceived in love . . . and he's a bit of a disappointment: Nearsighted, weak heart, destined for a life of menial work.

So, a couple of years later, his brother Anton is conceived in a test tube. He'll excel in every area, thanks to the miracle of laboratory birth decisions.

Eventually, Vincent is working as a janitor in Gattaca, a corporate space-travel agency. But he longs to take one of those trips himself, specifically a yearlong journey around Titan, the 14th moon of Saturn.

Sadly, in his physically "inferior" state, it will never happen. So, he saves his money and purchases a black-market identity, in league with Jerome (Jude Law), a superior, genetically engineered fellow, who is confined to a wheelchair, due to an accident.

They come up with an intricate plan to allow Vincent to masquerade as Jerome, which includes a daily regimen of scrubbing away his own genetic identity (quite literally) and using Jerome's blood, urine, hair samples and fingernail clippings to sneak by the powers that be as he rises in the corporate structure of Gattaca.

But when Vincent is close to boarding that space shuttle, Gattaca's director is murdered and Vincent is a suspect.

Niccol - perhaps deliberately - combines his ideas with images that bring to mind earlier sci-fi movies, along with "1984" and other literary sources.

But it's hard to make a movie about a sterile society with sterile characters and not come up with some pretty sterile performances. The movie is about the sublimation of humanity by the ultimate techno-society - with film noir overtones - and casting stone-faced actors like Hawke, Law and Uma Thurman (as Hawke's co-worker and love interest), as well as Elias Koteas, Loren Dean and Alan Arkin (as a blue-collar police detective) is a clever idea. But we need an emotional connection.

Still, it's good to have thoughtful science fiction after the genre has been inundated with dumb action pictures for so long.