A world where illness, deformity and ineptitude can be eliminated? James Mottram examines the moral implications of Gattaca
While the science fiction genre has experienced a renaissance since Independence Day, film-makers have boldly gone where all men have been before. Paul Verhoeven's fascistic Starship Troopers, the slick-humoured Men in Black and the tired Alien: Resurrection have all provoked more indifference than debate.

Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, a modest $20m near-future prophecy backed by Danny De Vito's Jersey Films, attempts to question something broader than whether we are alone or not. Potently exploring the concept of a society based on genetic classification, the New Zealand writer-director's "cautionary tale about the human spirit" envisages a world where illness, deformity and social ineptitude can be eliminated before birth. Managing to avoid the curse of comparison with Blade Runner, Niccol creates a "perfect, manicured world", where astronauts wear Armani and DNA testing is routine. Either an In-Valid (a natural birth), or a series of predetermined genetic choices (the Valids), progress in helped or hindered accordingly. Ethan Hawke plays the wannabe, paying a DNA broker for access to Jude Law's skin samples, blood and urine in an attempt to impersonate a Valid and fool the Gattaca Corporation into accepting him upon the Space Navigational programme.

Lamenting what we have seen recently as Space not Science Fiction, Niccol feels such films were not dealing with scientific or moral issues. "You can't open a newspaper without a gene being discovered. I could've updated the script week by week. There was a point where I had to stop and take a leap of faith.

"It's an issue that is going to confront us, or at least our children. There's already genetic discrimination in the workplace. Insurance companies are making decisions in America based on genetic code. More and more it will affect reproductive issues. We will have the choice. For some people it will be a godsend - to be able to eliminate an inheritable, crippling family disease."

Following the early Eighties Human Genome Project, in which an entire "alphabet" of human attributes and diseases were profiled and mapped, genetic engineering has recently advanced to the stage where diseases such as cystic fibrosis can be cured by transferring healthy DNA strands into the body. Yet Niccol remains rightly sceptical: "Beyond that, once you're in that petri dish, it's a fine line between something very humane and something inhumane."

Analogous to the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing, Niccol's vision is of a subtle form of discrimination, a projection of science fact with a chilling edge. "It's more frightening than a dictatorship. I don't think it will be some totalitarian state, telling us what to do. It's a natural human impulse to improve upon ourselves and to give our children the best possible start. Who doesn't want a healthy child? It's when becomes advancement that problems start. It'll be a personal decision. And I think it will be determined by what you can afford, in the way that some people can afford to send their children to the best school."

The slightly-framed Niccol spent the latter part of the Eighties in London, "the mecca of advertising", and split time between the capital and Los Angeles, directing commercials for multinationals. Following the Ridley Scott route to Hollywood, success came partly, believes Niccol, on the strength of the material, and partly "because they thought they were getting Mike Nichols". With Gattaca his second attempt at screenwriting, the first, a film also indebted to Orwellian tradition, has recently been completed. Directed by Peter Weir, The Truman Show is star Jim Carrey's attempt to re-establish his dramatic credentials after the misfire that was The Cable Guy. With Carrey an insurance salesman who remains unaware his whole life is being recorded by hidden cameras, it complements Gattaca in tone. The star of the world's most popular TV programme, Carrey - who took an $8m payout from his usual $20m asking price, learns that his friends and family are all actors, his house just a set. Niccol calls the $80m piece "just more paranoia".

A self-confessed traditionalist, Niccol avoids technology wherever possible, and hopes he would "play the hand that was dealt" when it comes to prospective fatherhood. "But who knows? If my partner had a genetic ailment, maybe I would doctor the DNA."

`Gattaca' is released on 20 March.