- Plato, Christianity, and the Cinematic Craft of Andrew Niccol
"The real reviews for a film are written five or ten years later."Andrew Niccol1
Perhaps it is an example of Providence's wry sense of humor that the best description of cinema and its "almost magical power of summoning into the darkness of its halls . . . crowds that are numbered by the billions"2 was written 2,400 years before the fact by a philosopher wary of storytelling's effects on the soul. Plato's Allegory of the Cave with its flickering images projected over the heads of a duped herd onto a blank wall remarkably anticipates the mechanisms of a movie theater. The astonishing affinity between modernity's greatest myth-making industry and pagan antiquity's greatest demythologizing metaphor may account, ironically enough, for the relative paucity of feature-length transpositions of Plato onto the big screen: an art form that relies so heavily on its power to deceive—or at least to convince of its verisimilitude—can scarcely afford to present a philosophical exposé of its trade secrets. As Ovid famously remarked, Ars latet arte sua: Art prefers to hide its artifice. [End Page 43]
Viewed against this backdrop, the filmography of New Zealand screenwriter and director Andrew M. Niccol is all the more noteworthy. Niccol's work has been analyzed from a variety of popular and critical perspectives, but it is my intention to demonstrate both how his films are best explained as cinematic adaptations of Plato's Republic as well as how they are infused with a Catholic sensibility. Niccol's work, therefore, is significant not only for its own artistic merits but also because its double reflection of Plato and Christianity is evocative of that period in Church history when bishops and theologians took the claims and concerns of classical political philosophy seriously. Traces of this Platonic-Patristic colloquy are evident in Niccol's first three principal films—Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show (1998), and S1m0ne (2002)3 —and so it is to these that we must turn.
Gattaca is Andrew Niccol's debut as both a cinematic screenwriter and director. Set, we are told, in "the not-too-distant future," the film opens with two quotations set against a black backdrop. The first is from Ecclesiastes 7:13—"Consider God's handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?" As we soon learn, "crooked" refers within the context of the plot to genetically inherited deficiencies ranging from congenital heart failure to premature baldness. The second quote comes from Dr. Willard Gaylin, a Columbia professor of psychiatry and a vocal proponent of abortion and euthanasia: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to."4 In the not-too-distant future, then, modern society will endeavor to straighten what God hath made crooked on the grounds that it is morally imperative to do so. The discrepancy between the outlooks of each passage thus establishes the central conflict of the film.
Caught in between is the protagonist, Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke). As with all of Niccol's films, the names of the [End Page 44] characters are significant. Vincent is a "free man," an ironic surname given the gene-obsessed world into which he is born, one that legally prohibits DNA discrimination but practices it proficiently nonetheless. (As Vincent sardonically observes, "we now have discrimination down to a science.") Genetically wanting applicants are relegated to the most demeaning of jobs, and parents are encouraged to conceive their offspring in a laboratory with the help of a geneticist—a process which, in an Orwellian twist of meanings, is called the "natural" way. If Vincent is truly free, then it is a freedom he must earn, or take.
Vincent's first name is also significant. When he is born, he is about to be named Anton after his father Antonio, a name that means "inestimable" or "beyond praise." Antonio, however, changes his mind after he learns within seconds of his son's birth that the infant suffers from a number of genetic defects, including a 99 percent chance that his heart will...