The stylish, coolly intelligent science-fiction morality tale Gattaca skips right over the hostile aliens and faraway planets: It's set in a near-future in which parents can choose their children's genetic make-up, insuring that they'll enter the rat race free of such handicaps as low IQ, bad vision and thunder thighs. It's about potential, performance and what it really means to have the right stuff, and it's proof that there is science fiction without aliens, battles in space, time travel or murderous robots.

Writer-director Andrew Niccol envisions an America in which DNA is destiny, pre-natal engineering is the norm, and a new genetic elite reaps all life's advantage while everyone else scrambles for the scraps. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is 'natural born,' a nearsighted 'love child' with a weak heart and a burning desire to join the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation's flight program. But, despite his obvious intelligence and determination, Vincent's random genes condemn him to society's lowest occupations, and the closest he can get to Gattaca is working on the cleaning crew. So he makes a desperate deal: For a percentage of Vincent's future earnings, a black-marketeer hooks him up with embittered, one-time Olympic swimmer Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), who was crippled in a car accident outside the U.S. Jerome will lend Vincent his superior genetic profile, a hugely complicated and intimate process that involves tiny baggies full of dead skin, bags of urine and peel-off fingertips cushioned with precious drops of blood.

It all works; Vincent is hired at Gattaca, rises through the ranks and begins a relationship with beautiful co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman). But then the inevitable sticky situation arises: One week before Vincent's first mission, a Gattaca bigwig is murdered and the police are all over the place. In a world in which a man's genetic profile can be plucked from a fallen eyelash, there is nowhere to run.

Forget that Gattaca's murder mystery is strictly pro forma, and that neither of the 11th-hour revelations comes as a great surprise. Where Niccol has succeeded brilliantly is in creating an emotionally plausible future in which the prejudices and neuroses of the present have been taken to new, insidiously scientifically rationalized heights: It's only a small step from overachieving parents tormenting their toddlers with educational flash cards to pre-programming them for financial and social success at the genetic level. What ambitious bride-to-be wouldn't want to check out her intended's genes-it's so much more thorough than hiring some sleazy private detective to check the guy out and, hey, why not do it before the first date and save everyone some time and trouble? Gattaca is essentially a 'Twilight Zone' episode blown up to feature length, and that's not a bad thing-unlike most blockbuster sci-fi epics, it's a throwback to the idea that science fiction is meant to be provocative rather than hollowly dazzling.

That said, it's spectacularly beautiful as well: Niccol fills his wide-screen frames with serene and breathtakingly beautiful images, allowing his eerily attractive, sleekly costumed cast to glide through a futuristic landscape that is, for the most part, a series of variations on glossy, contemporary interior design. And it's no stretch of the imagination to believe that Hawke, Law and Thurman are the projects of some top-secret Operation Beautiful People.

--Maitland McDonagh