Gattaca Tales, by Ric Meyers
Well, it’s SF week at the ol’ DVD Xtra. Not sci-fi week, but SF week, using the “official” contraction sanctified by the Science Fiction Writers of America, of which I was once a member. Now, if I were considering the likes of I Robot and/or I am Legend – two Will Smith vehicles adapted from far superior books – then maybe it would be sci-fi week. But, no, I’m reviewing two wildly divergent films – one totally out of control and one totally in control – that best exemplify the “genre of ideas.”
As virtually almost always, the studios green-light these projects then never really know what to do with them or how to market them. So, while both these releases should have been (and would have benefited greatly from being) glutted with special features the way Will Smith’s DVDs are, they’re both a tad light in the digital loafers (as it were). The lightest, and the most needy, is Southland Tales, another ready-made cult classic created by writer/director Richard Kelly, who had already given the world Donnie Darko.
Anybody involved had to know what they were getting here. It’s not like the whole thing was improvised. In fact, during the thirty minute “making of” doc called “USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland,” actors professed to not being able to understand the long script but signing on anyway. If any film needed an audio commentary, this one does, but it doesn’t have one. Instead, the half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette skims over a wide range of approaches – from actor interviews to set decoration to stunt detailing. Richard Kelly is much in evidence, however, vainly trying to defend and detail his base-level Dr. Strangelovian funhouse of a film.
Here, again, is where DVDs can improve the viewing experience. In theaters, Kelly’s overstuffed confection would, and did, become fairly intolerable. But taken in DVD chunks (or chapters, if you will), the futuristic action mystery musical dramedy can even be enjoyable … if only to marvel at Kelly’s hubris, and the huge cast who agreed to participate. Even as a game of “spot the cult fave,” the film can be fun. There’s the Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Christopher Lambert, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Curtis Armstrong (Booger!), and Janeane Garofalo, as well as a bunch of past and future Saturday Night Livers and Mad–TVers.
The waters are further muddied, or cleansed, depending on your point of view, by the disc’s only other extra: “This is the Way the World Ends” – a short limited-animation that serves as a presequel to the film, in that it shows an octopi-like future earth citizen explaining to his child how humans came to be the misshapen, hunted creatures they now are (in the cartoon at least). Ultimately, the Southland Tales disc has much to delight and decry, giving this box office bomb a worthy second life on DVD.
And at least Richard Kelly is there to showcase his mutant baby. Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s absence from the Gattaca Special Edition DVD is painfully obvious, and representative of the disc’s dissatisfaction. This 1997 THX-1138-ish/1984-ish box office disappointment was perhaps just as famous for its celebrity subtext as it was for its murky message. It is famous to the rumor millers because of co-stars’ Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s subsequent affair, as well as introducing co-costar Jude Law to the breathless populace.
This effort also lacks an audio commentary, but tries to compensate with three interesting yet not fully satisfying featurettes. The “Original Featurette,” included on the initial home entertainment release, is back, and serves as an appetite whetter, being that it’s the classic edutainment short that essentially tells the film’s story through gushing, unremittingly positive interviews.
Then there’s the kinda newish “Welcome to Gattaca” doc, which has more balanced, retro and intro-spective, cast and crew interviews. Like the Southland Tales making-of, it leaps from actors to techs with abandon, creating a textbook example of how to create an expensive-looking movie with the judicious use of existing buildings and props (one of my favorite revelations is that a cool-looking DNA-testing tube was actually created from designer underwear packaging).
Keeping with the textbook approach is the “Do Not Alter” doc (a title cutely referencing the film’s theme with its first letters; D.N.A. – echoing the movie’s title, which is made up of letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA), which plays like one of those old educational classroom documentaries teachers use to show their students on a 16mm film projector. It’s full of hirsute, bespectacled scientists detailing the history of gene research research before yanking the theme back to the film.
Rounding out the package are deleted scenes, highlighted by the film’s original coda – which shows famous historical personages who “wouldn’t have been born” if genetic engineering had been used: people like Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. Unfortunately, this somewhat pretentious approach begs the question: well, wouldn’t they still have been born, only without the condition that challenged them? Which, of course, in turn, begs the response; well, wasn’t it their reaction to their physical and mental limitations which made them who they turned out to be?
In any case, saner heads prevailed, and the coda was eliminated from the release print, but, sadly, that didn’t help the film in its initial release. Thankfully, the questions and discussions it raises holds it in good stead as a cult classic that remains one of the great unsung SF films, and perennial DVD releases. It’s worth catching up with, if you haven’t already. And that goes for you double, writer/director Andrew Niccol. If Richard Kelly can stand up for Southland Tales, for pity’s sake, what’s with you?
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography andThe Incredibly Strange Film Show.