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Imagine an Orwellian story presented with a cool, eerie precision like Peter Greenaway's and you have some sense of ''Gattaca,'' a handsome and fully imagined work of cautionary futuristic fiction. Its subject is bigotry, though the races and sexes appear to enjoy equal freedom, which is to say not much. The film's world revolves around strict conformity at places like the Gattaca Corporation, where employees wear somber uniforms and stern, serious expressions -- except for one man with a discreetly worried look: Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), Gattaca's house imposter.
Vincent has already tried conventional means of working his way to the top at Gattaca, but in his case a janitor's job is the limit. That is because Vincent came into the world in what is now the conventional manner but could, in an age of genetic engineering, become obsolete. The film envisions a culture of unapologetic discrimination, with genetically Valid individuals spared defects like baldness, alcoholism and attention deficit disorder and given great privilege. The others, called In-Valids, are relegated to menial work. ''They don't care where you were born,'' someone says about this arrangement. ''Just how.''
''Gattaca,'' an impressively fine-tuned first feature from Andrew Niccol, has been cleverly marketed for weeks with advertisements offering genetically select babies, slick images that fit all too smoothly into today's culture of perfectionist striving. The film is set in ''the not-too-distant future,'' and indeed it succeeds as a scarily apt extension of present-day attitudes. But beyond the ingenuity of its premise, ''Gattaca'' also holds interest with its obsessive attention to detail. The filmmakers gave thought to such matters as whether automobiles of the future would need license plates (no, just microchips) and deftly set Gattaca's headquarters in Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center. The building becomes a perfect reflection of the film's spare, controlled state of mind.
Surreptitiously battling the powers that be is Vincent, who has concocted an elaborate subterfuge. He is in collusion with Eugene, a onetime star swimmer played by Jude Law, who makes the most sensational major movie debut (he appeared in a small film called ''Shopping'') since Edward Norton walked off with ''Primal Fear.'' Eugene is the perfect genetic specimen that Vincent, who has a heart defect, is not. ''You could go anywhere,'' Vincent is told, ''with this guy's helix tucked under your arm.''
Eugene has been crippled in an accident, which effectively cuts short all opportunity for him in this brave new world. So a gene-broker of sorts (Tony Shalhoub) works out a deal whereby Vincent can use Eugene's genetic samples to get past Gattaca's daily security checks. The film renders this process with fascinating precision, showing how nail cuttings, fingerprints, blood and urine samples, even hairs and dandruff, can be methodically switched. The film's extremely handsome look offsets the physicality of these details with test tubes and steel surfaces and seductive, otherworldly lighting in shades like radium green.
Vincent is in genetic disguise because he dreams of being one of Gattaca's astronauts, who in a film like this wear dark business suits rather than space gear. He wants to go to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and is only days away from a possible trip there when a crisis intervenes. A Gattaca executive is killed and a stray eyelash is found at the murder scene. This is a film where the wrong eyelash could mean complete disaster.
Uma Thurman, who grows more bewitching with each new role, plays the colleague so suspicious of Vincent that she sends a hair from his comb for an identity check. (He has, of course, left Eugene's hair on his comb. At Gattaca, a man can't be too careful.) The film treats Ms. Thurman as a model of composed, corporate perfection, though it also finds a way for her to run through an alley in a silver lame evening gown.
Meanwhile, the large and well-used cast features Alan Arkin as a detective, Loren Dean as his superior officer, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine as Gattaca officials, and Xander Berkeley as the most powerful man in the building. He's the scientist in charge of daily urinalysis when the staff arrives at work.
The film, which seems contrived only when dealing with Vincent's family and which creates its own wrenching sense of brotherhood in the relationship between Vincent and bitter, melancholy Eugene, benefits from extraordinary off-camera talent. Michael Nyman, who composed music for ''The Piano'' and many Greenaway films, contributes a piercingly lovely score. The production designer Jan Roelfs, also a Greenaway regular, contributes backdrops of strange, unnerving beauty.
Evocatively muted costumes are from Colleen Atwood, whose memorable credits range from ''Little Women'' to ''Edward Scissorhands'' and who gives this film a polished elegance. The cinematography is by Slawomir Idziak, who brought a comparably rich, brooding look to Krzysztof Kieslowski's ''Double Life of Veronique'' and ''Three Colors: Blue.''
''Gattaca'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes clinical scientific detail, one brief sexual situation and some violence in its final moments. Older children with a taste for science fiction should find it intriguing.
Directed and written by Andrew Niccol; director of photography, Slawomir Idziak; edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin; music by Michael Nyman; production designer, Jan Roelfs; costumes by Colleen Atwood; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 112 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.
WITH: Ethan Hawke (Vincent and Jerome), Uma Thurman (Irene), Gore Vidal (Director Josef), Xander Berkeley (Lamar), Jayne Brook (Marie), Ernest Borgnine (Caesar), Alan Arkin (Detective Hugo), Blair Underwood (Geneticist), Loren Dean (Anton), Jude Law (Jerome and Eugene), Tony Shalhoub (German) and Elias Koteas (Antonio).