Picks and Pans Review: Gattaca

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Loren Dean

Watching Gattaca, a refreshingly pared-down science-fiction thriller, you suddenly realize what a long time it has been since there was a sci-fi film in which the screen wasn't filled to bursting with giant spacecraft, weaponry and squawking aliens. Mercifully, they're all absent here. Gattaca, with its streamlined visuals and provocative plot, is a thinking person's sci-fi film, or one that at least prompts greater reflection afterward than the jingoistic Independence Day, munitions-heavy Fifth Element or just plain gaseous Contact.

The movie is set in the near future, when would-be parents can genetically pick whether Junior will be tall, have a full head of hair, a high IQ or other traits. As a geneticist tells one set of expectant parents, "The child is still yours, but simply the best of you." What happens to the kids born the old-fashioned way? They are classified as "In-Valids" and shunted off to low-skills jobs. Gattaca's regular-guy hero (Hawke) isn't willing to settle for second-class citizenship. He hopes to be sent into space by his employer, the powerful Gattaca corporation. To qualify for a flight, he must pretend he's to the petri dish born, which he does by using elaborate ruses to pass frequent urine and blood tests. But the closer Hawke gets to reaching his rocket-man dream, the closer he comes to being caught.

Hawke, less wishy-washy here than in previous roles, gives a strong, considered leading-man performance. Thurman, as a colleague he's romancing, is lovely to look at but as stiff as her futuristic surroundings. With Gattaca, first-time director-screenwriter Andrew Niccol, a New Zealander, scores an impressive debut, one showing vision and promise. (PG-13)

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