What is genetic engineering, after all, but preemptive plastic surgery? Make the child perfect in the test tube, and save money later. Throw in perfect health, a high IQ and a long life-span, and you have the brave new world of “Gattaca,” in which the bioformed have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get to be menial laborers.
This is one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas. Its hero is a man who challenges the system. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy of about 30 years. He is an “In-Valid,” and works as a cleaner in a space center.
Vincent does not accept his fate. He never has. As a child, he had swimming contests with his brother Anton (Loren Dean), who has all the right scores but needs to be saved from drowning. Now Vincent dreams of becoming a crew member on an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn. Using an illegal DNA broker, he makes a deal with a man named Jerome (Jude Law), who has the right genes but was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome will provide him with blood, urine samples and an identity. In a sense, they'll both go into space. “Gattaca” is the remarkable debut of a writer-director from New Zealand, Andrew Niccol, whose film is intelligent and thrilling--a tricky combination--and also visually exciting. His most important set is a vast office where genetically superior computer programmers come to work every day, filing into their long rows of desks like the office slaves in King Vidor's “The Crowd” and Orson Welles' “The Trial.” (Why are “perfect” human societies so often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides in our flaws?) Vincent, as “Jerome,” gets a job as a programmer, supplies false genetic samples and becomes a finalist for the space shot.
The tension comes in two ways. First, there's the danger that Vincent will be detected; the area is swept daily, and even an eyelash can betray him. Second, there's a murder; a director of the center, who questions the wisdom of the upcoming shot, is found dead, and a detective (Alan Arkin) starts combing the personnel for suspects. Will a computer search sooner or later put together Vincent, the former janitor, with “Jerome,” the new programmer? Vincent becomes friendly with Irene (Uma Thurman), who works in the center but has been passed over for a space shot because of low scores in some areas. They are attracted to one another, but romance in this world can be dangerous; after kissing a man, a woman is likely to have his saliva swabbed from her mouth so she can test his prospects. Other supporting characters include Gore Vidal, as a mission supervisor, and Tony Shalhoub as the broker (“You could go anywhere with this guy's helix under your arm”).
Hawke is a good choice for the lead, combining the restless dreams of a “Godchild” with the plausible exterior of a lab baby. The best scenes involve his relationship with the real Jerome, played by Law as smart, bitter, and delighted to be sticking it to the system that has grounded him. (He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but after all, as the movie observes, you don't need to walk in space.) His drama parallels Vincent's, because if either one is caught they'll both go down together.
Science fiction in the movies has recently specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish, the science in “Gattaca” is theoretically possible. When parents can order “perfect” babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars? That's how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children.
Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun? Will parents order children who are rebellious, ungainly, eccentric, creative, or a lot smarter than their parents are? There's a concert pianist in “Gattaca” who has 12 fingers. Don't you sometimes have the feeling you were born just in time?
“The future world of Gattaca”, by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works, 2016)
The future world of Gattaca, based on the science of genetic discrimination, offers a hostile world for those who believe in a natural birth, or natural selection. Such individuals are rendered “invalid” owing to the inferior nature of their random birth. In this futuristic science fiction thriller, Andrew Niccol creates a science dictatorship, whereby human aspiration is repressed in favour of genetic perfection. It is a Brave New World indeed and proves as Aldous Huxley once stated, “without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human”. In Vincent’s struggle, Niccol celebrates the power of self-belief to inspire individuals to scale the heights.
The world of Gattaca
- Eugenics is the science of producing genetically superior beings through controlled breeding: the purpose of eugenics is to improve society by eliminating defective genes.
- Genetic determinism is the belief that biology is destiny; you cannot overcome the fate of your genes.
- A dystopia is a society where social happiness and freedom have been destroyed.
- There is genetic discrimination between the “valids” (genetically designed individuals) and the “invalids” (the natural-born).
- The main character, Vincent, is not allowed to go to space because of his physical defects, while “designed” people have all the opportunities.
- Although discrimination on genetic grounds is illegal in Gattica, people still discriminate and judge people according to their genes.
- Vincent is a “degenerate”: such individuals are ignored and excluded from most aspects of society. Also his life is limited and he is doomed to “second best” position.
- The director, Niccol, shows that the intangible aspects such as spirituality, love, respect – which are important in our life and in our relationships with others – cannot be determined by genes.
In the sterile environment of Gattaca, life is genetically controlled right from the outset so that everyone gets the “best possible start”. The sterile setting metaphorically captures an oppressive and authoritarian atmosphere that prizes genetic perfection above all else. It is a world that represses human aspiration and interaction. This becomes evident through the robotic-type characters that inhabit Gattaca. Individual characteristics such as personality, beliefs, values and a person’s moral code are irrelevant. Identity is seen in this world as being entirely defined by your status as a valid or in-valid. Beyond this, nothing else is important.
The opening scenes in Gattaca set an aura of controlled bodily perfection. Vincent is seen shaving and washing. A hair is pricked from the keyboard and the director comments on his extreme cleanliness, which Vincent believes is “next to godliness”. There are extreme close-ups of body matter: blood, skin, hair (including eyelashes), urine and fingernails. These are used in the film to collect genetic readouts on characters. At one point, Irene steals a piece of hair from Vincent’s comb in order to get a readout of him. This is a common feature in the scientifically-controlled world of Gattaca. In close-up frames, the camera magnifies the minuscule. The use of such shots shows how Gattaca’s society magnifies the importance of genetic material, the smallest physical element of a human being. And yet, ironically the “perfect” specimens are those who are hampered by a lack of desire; this idea of perfection is actually corrupted from the outset.
When Vincent/Jerome enters the aeronautical facility, he does a finger print test and the green light flashes. This is followed by a pin-prick blood test, revealing how gene-testing becomes their security system. Soon after, the doctor provides him with a plastic vial for a urine sample, which is important in revealing a person’s genetic profile. The yellow filters used throughout provide a futuristic look of eeriness which underwrites the feeling of sterility and perfection.
As a naturally born baby, Vincent is “abnormal” in this new world order of ‘genoism’. A simple prick of blood gives his life story. He has a heart disorder and a life expectancy of around 30.2 years. From this moment, we learn that Vincent is already at a disadvantage. In contrast to Vincent, Anton is the “perfect” experiment. He is born a “vitro” birth, Anton is given the start in life that Vincent lacks. He appears superior based on his scientific birth (discrimination factor). In answer to one of Vincent’s questions, Anton responds that he could be an astronaut if he wanted to be, which spells his contempt for Vincent as well as the impossibility of Vincent’s dream. Anton is described as a “son my father considered worthy of his name”.
An anachronistic birth
The historical world where children were born of love is presented as anachronistic and degenerate. This becomes particularly apparent during Vincent’s flashback relating to the circumstances of his birth. The director uses Vincent’s adult voice to narrate the circumstances of his birth in nostalgic terms. He comments, “they used to say that a child conceived in love has a far greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.”
Vincent highlights the association of love and happiness that used to ensure security and emotional satisfaction. His comments “they don’t say that any more” and later “ten fingers ten toes that used to be all that matters … not any more”. The implication is that the world has changed dramatically. The director switches from the car — the romantic setting of his biological inception — to the interior of the hospital, the setting of his biological birth, to show how outdated these concepts are. The camera zooms in on the string of rosary beads and a crucifix to highlight the religious views of his mother, Marie. Her Christian name reflects her piety and her joy is evident in zoomed in camera shots. Throughout these interior scenes, the retro ambience reinforces the archaic nature of Vincent’s birth.
The director deliberately juxtaposes the new technological world of Gattaca with this ancient world of biological “ancient” births. That religion is superseded by technology immediately becomes apparent upon the genetic testing of the baby, which is a critical moment in the life of all citizens in Gattaca. Vincent’s genetic tests reveal that he has a life expectancy rate of 30.2 years with a 99% probability of a fatal heart condition. The quick succession of images reinforce the parents’ anxiety as they await the blood test because this is so critical in the new world. Because of his flawed genetic makeup, the father refuses to name him “Anton”, which already shows his antagonism towards the new baby. Vincent is conditioned to see himself as flawed: “from an early age I came to think of myself as others thought of me – chronically ill.”
Vincent’s first day at kindergarten also reinforces his defects. As he cannot gain insurance, attendance was initially forbidden. His exclusion sets a pattern of discrimination that ends with his exclusion from the space ship. His mother’s prediction, “you’ll do something”, shows her faith in the human spirit that is vindicated by Vincent’s determination to reach space.
The forbidden dream
From an early age, Vincent harbours a dream to go to Titan. This is a forbidden dream owing to his genetic makeup. However, it is one that allows him the chance to escape from all that he detests about his present world condition, especially the prejudice and controlled environment that subtly disallows people like him to raise above their genetic conditioning. He belongs to an “underclass” in a system that has “discrimination down to a science”. Through symbols of exclusion and conformity the director portrays a sterile society, lacking in human qualities and courage. With his current genetic makeup, Vincent can only aspire to be a cleaner in the space program. We see him constant cleaning the glass, which is a futile gesture.
A change of heart
After his swimming escapade and as he leaves home to forge a new personality, Vincent rips his photo out of the album, literally tearing away his visual identity. Taking on the “valid” personality of Jerome, enables Vincent to “mould” a new identity and with this comes more opportunities to succeed in the world of Gattaca. But ironically, it is Vincent’s personality, his strengths and weaknesses, that enable him to “perfect” the new identity.
The turning point: the swimming contest
Niccol contrasts the two swimming scenes to foreground the different attitudes between Anton and Vincent towards life’s difficulties.
These contests reveal much about their personality differences — as a child and as an adult. Prior to the second contest, Anton condescendingly asserts, “You didn’t beat me that day. I beat myself.”
Anton’s true character is revealed in the second contest when he stops several times, overtaken by fear, calling on Vincent to return to the shore. He arrogantly refuses to acknowledge and accept that he does have limitations, and Vincent has to rescue him a second time.
The swim, which epitomises the rivalry between the two types of genetic makeup, shows Vincent that he can possibly achieve just as much, if not more, than his brother, Anton. At times, the camera is under the water which allows for a special close up on Vincent’s face to show his determination; there are also full body shots to show them swimming in syncopation to capture a sense of equality. Whilst the director zooms in on the flagging Anton, who, despite the fact that he has been programmed for perfection, struggles for breath, he also shows that despite Vincent’s critical condition and the fact that he is doomed to die at the young age of 30.2 years, his strength and determination enable him to overcome a fear of failure. He saves Anton and brings him back to shore. This is the one moment when Vincent realises that he is “not as weak”, nor Anton “as strong” as they both appear or should be. Critically his success gives him the confidence to recognise that bodily perfection does not automatically guarantee success; nor does his imperfection necessarily deny him the opportunity to pursue his vision. This moment, “made everything else possible”. Water is in important image throughout the film and shows how Vincent discards his old identity to recreate himself.
Natural strength of character
Armed with courage, Vincent decides he can overcome his poor genetic makeup with sufficient willpower and with the cover of a “valid” persona, Jerome. Through a gene-broker he slowly adapts to the photo of the “real” Jerome. However, when the gene-broker draws his attention to their height difference Vincent is ready to give up. When we witness a close-up scene of Vincent lying flat out on the floor of the apartment with surgical braces on his legs we can begin to understand his acute pain. Vincent comments in a voice-over that he takes his mind off the pain “by reminding myself that when I eventually did stand up, I’d be exactly two inches closer to the stars”.
The constant need to shave and wash show the dangers of his situation. He is forced to remove all trace of his identity. Shaving and washing become the keys to his shedding his imperfect genetic identity.
The whole scheme is always going to be difficult to maintain and sustain and Jerome spends his time providing endless urine and blood samples. It is also physically difficult for him to sustain the stringent physical conditioning necessary to aspire for his goal. He finds it difficult to keep up with the “valids”. Vincent’s identity is all but exposed during the director’s murder. Just one eyelash threatens to reveal Vincent’s entire personality.
Vincent struggles against the odds. Not only does he suffer surgical braces, near collapses on the treadmill, near-capture as a murder suspect but also near-death experiences owing to poor eye-sight. He has to cross the highway, almost blind, to join Irene. This proves that contrary to the dominant ideology, a person’s character and potential cannot be engineered or predicted. Despite his genetic defects and his myopic disease, Vincent’s spirit helps him to make it to the other side. His desire to reach Irene allows him to overcome his defective vision. Sight and blindness become important metaphors in a society that fails to see the quality of an individual. There are references to blindness on the part of the authorities and mainstream society, such as the incident when the police and Jerome’s workmates fail to see Vincent in him, instead focusing on genetic details.
Despite the attempt by the controllers to condition and determine the individual, it is precisely the human characteristics of desire, ambition and motivation that enable Vincent to succeed, where others such as Jerome and Anton do not.
Vincent appears to achieve more than his brother, Anton. Certainly, Anton lacks any kindred feelings of humanity. This is obvious when the two brothers finally confront each other; Anton wants to arrest him for fraud. Kindred brotherly feelings are meaningless.
Anton is an underachiever
The Director emphasises Anton’s failure to achieve his potential. He points out to Anton that “occasionally, we’ve been forced to accept candidates with minor shortcomings.” But he suggests Anton could work in a field such as law enforcement.
Throughout it is obvious that he lacks strength of character and is embittered and egotistical. It is almost as if he expects to get anything he requires by virtue of his superior birth. Ironically, because of this, he always falls short.
Jerome lacks the desire
Similarly, Jerome, also a “perfect specimen, suffers under the “burden of perfection”. He lacks Vincent’s desire to strive and succeed against the odds. We learn that he had everything he needed to succeed, “except the desire to do so”. The director is showing us that no matter how much a system tries to manufacture individuals it cannot completely control their psyche, inspiration and motivation—key ingredients to an individual’s chance to succeed.
It also shows that the attempt to overcome the challenges of genetic limitations is an essential human experience. Being human means that you will have flaws. If we attempt to eradicate imperfection we are taking out of the human experience a defining element.
A final comment on discrimination
The world of Gattaca, based as it is on discrimination, is, the director would suggest, just as dangerous as discrimination in traditional areas such as race, gender and religion. People are defined according to their relationship to the dominant power. Labels are attached, imposed upon individuals without their consent and assumptions are made about their differences. In this case, scientific proof becomes the absolute basis for discrimination. While the society holds it is a truth, that DNA is a primary factor that determines success, for example, Vincent proves that the philosophy underpinning the discrimination is flawed. Success is determined by other variables that are not within the control of science.
(Gattaca, English Works Notes, 2016)
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