Colour affects our emotional perception of the world. It speaks to us on such a primary level that we barely think of it. It is there not to be seen, it is there to be felt. To understand how green can be used to reveal a character’s state of mind and personality, we can use the example of Jerome (Jude Law’s character) in the film from 1997 Gattaca.
Jerome Morrow is a genetically improved man. He lives in a world were eugenics is common, and DNA plays a primary role in determining social class. His destiny is to always be the best. But after a car accident he is now just a cripple on a wheelchair. So this is the way that director Andrew Niccol chooses to introduce him. Smoking a cigarette, Jerome is backlit with this almost toxic green light.
With this shot you can read very clearly Jerome’s state of mind. You can read it on his face, on the green mouldy walls of his apartment, on the empty bottles of alcohol on the floor, on the unhealthy yellow green colour of his skin, on the wheelchair, the cigarette… it’s a fantastic master piece of character exposition.
Green is a colour that presents a duality. In its plant manifestation, it signals life itself. However green in the atmosphere, water or skin can be read it as toxic or unhealthy. “Beware of the green water” is a sailor’s warning, “You look green, you must be sick” is another common saying.
Now, if you haven’t seen the movie stop reading right now, watch the movie first and come back because I’m about to give away key moments of the movie. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) narrates at the beginning of the film how he was conceived in the back seat of a car as “faith birth”. The colour Green appears this time not as a toxic environment but as a metaphor of life. However, Vincent’s father disappointment on his son’s natural abilities makes him decide to visit a genetic enhancing clinic and make sure he gives his second son the best genetics tools to succeed in life.
And that’s how Anton is born. You can see from now the green colour shifting and privileging one kid over the other. Anton’s clothes are always using different shades of greens while Vincent is left with more brownish earthy tones in his wardrobe.
The drama that propels the story is Vincent’s life obsession to go to the space. This is a story about commitment to a dream. About how he doesn’t have any other choice left but to take another man’s identity to be accepted in Gattaca. “Each day I would dispose of as much loose skin, fingernails, and hair as possible to limit how much of my INVALID self I would leave in the VALID world. At the same time, Jerome would prepare samples of his own superior body matter so I might pass for him.” His voiceover explains.
When Gattaca’s Mission Director is murdered, and through a discovery of an INVALID eyelash, Vincent becomes a suspect. The lead detective is Anton Freeman. But despite his best efforts Anton can’t unmask Vincent. Filled with anger that his own brother couldn’t stand to lose to him Vincent shouts to Anton:
“You wanna know how I made it? I never save anything for the way back” alluding to a swimming game they used to play when they were kids in which the first one to get scared or exhausted and swim back to shore would lose. At the end of the film we see how colours support the characters in a different ways. Jerome gains and changes so much helping Vincent that all the green has disappeared from his environment. He gives a letter to Vincent to be opened only when he is in space. Vincent says, “I don’t know how to thank you.” Jerome replies, “I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body. You lent me your dream.” Vincent will walk through a green tunnel that leads to a spaceship that would take him to the stars.
- Color on Developing Characters and Story – Kathy & Frank Whitaker – Far From Heaven 2002
- Blake Snyder Beat Sheet – aka “BS2″