Gattaca • Michael Nyman
54:55 min • Virgin Records America • October 21st, 1997
The film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, was released in 1997. It is a dystopian science fiction, or speculative fiction, about a society in which an individual’s future is dictated by eugenics, and by an assessment of a person’s genetically determined potential. A person who is born without the aid of the technology is classified as an in-valid, which is the status of Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who borrows the identity of Eugene Morrow (Jude Law) to gain entry into the Gattaca space program. The plot turns on the murder of the Mission Director, the discovery of one of Vincent’s eyelashes within the complex, and the resulting manhunt.
The soundtrack for Gattaca was composed by Michael Nyman. It is a minimalist work of composition that is an aural rendering of the film’s tone. The London born Nyman is primarily a classical composer who has scored soundtracks predominantly for European art house cinema. His work with Peter Greenaway on such films as The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) is amongst his most striking. It was his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) that increased Nyman’s popularity. For it he won an Ivor Novello Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and an American Film Institute award. In the same year he reworked the soundtrack into a coherent and more complex whole in The Piano Concerto.
In Gattaca, one of only a few soundtracks he has scored for a Hollywood production, Nyman’s compositions are a musical rendering of its subject. It is not the music that creates the tension, or manipulates the audience into a state of heightened emotion, but the drama. The soundtrack works so closely with the subject that it is almost indistinguishable from it. The result bolsters the strength of a visually and thematically coherent film, and this is to Nyman’s credit. When it is separated from the film, nevertheless, is as beautiful and haunting as it is in context.
From the opening bars of ‘The Morrow’ the message is clear. The deep, almost ominous pulsing of the double bass is overlain with the melancholic strings that carry the signature tune and strain against its underlying weight. It is through this signature theme that the weight of Vincent’s struggle is realised. It has a quiet beauty that reinforces the message of the drama. The track ‘God’s Hands’, which accompanies the flashback to Vincent’s conception as a Faith Birth, borne from love, carries this musical message without the weight, without the strain. The result serves to inform the emotion in the soundtrack to his current life, which is one that pushes against the constraints of a genetically predetermined fate. The struggle is to be free of the limitations imposed by a fate determined by the laws of genetic probability.
Whilst it is not the most musically diverse of Nyman’s soundtracks – The Piano; The Draughtman’s Contract; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: all three are that – it is certainly not “utterly boring” as the review on allmusic.com proclaims, or “highly monotonous” as the moviestore.net review concludes. One would have be either tonally deaf or in need of a constant stimulation, almost like a child, to reach such banal conclusions. Nyman’s Gattaca is a focussed and consistent work of minimalist composing that does not stray from the message.
Gattaca the film certainly has its flaws. The competition between the in-valid Vincent and his valid younger brother Anton is a device that is straight out of Robert McKee’s Story and reads as a calculated move to throw a switch inside the movie executives head that registers with a green light. Nyman manages to reign this in by providing an aural consistency and focussing on the message, which is all about Vincent’s determination. “There is no gene for the human spirit”: this is the tagline for Gattaca. It is what makes the film as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is about aspiration pushing against the weight of circumstance. Nyman is always on point with his accomplished soundtrack.