Gattaca, a 1997 film starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman, tells a thrilling tale set in the “not too distant future” as the opening scene chillingly states. The narrative follows a young man named Vincent Freeman, who lives in a world where one’s genetic makeup determines their entire life.
Vincent’s parents conceived him naturally in a world where eugenics reigns as the norm and parents can use technology to construct their own babies, picking the traits before birth that they desire most from gender to eye and hair color because “we have enough imperfection already.” Without such bioengineering to his advantage, Vincent is born and nurses instantly check the specific statistics that will determine his entire life. The expectations are not very promising: he has extremely high chances of attention deficit disorder, near-sightedness, and most importantly heart failure that forecasts his expected life span to be a startlingly young age of 32. Vincent grows up with messy hair and goofy glasses next to his brother Anton, who was genetically engineered and perfect, unlike him.
Genetic engineering and precise statistics of life expectancy are central to the Gattaca world because they determine one’s education, social class, and career. Those who are not reproductively structured for perfection like Vincent are “invalids” and cannot have high-ranking positions due to a short life expectancy and the problems caused by disease. As Vincent puts it:
My real résumé was in my cells… Of course, it’s illegal to discriminate, ‘genoism’ it’s called. But no one takes the law seriously. If you refuse to disclose, they can always take a sample from a door handle or a handshake, even the saliva on your application form… an illegal peek at your future in the company.
Unfortunately, Vincent is a bright boy and his dream is to go to space—he leaves home and gets a cleaning job at the space station Gattaca in order to be as close as possible to the flights. He realizes that he can no longer merely stand just watching the spaceships take off one by one without being a passenger, so he decides to resort to illegal measures. Vincent illicitly seeks out a man on the DNA black market to help him take on the identity of a young man named Jerome Morrow, a valid with perfect genetic makeup who was paralyzed from the waist down in an unrecorded accident out of the country. Jerome’s future is down the drain as a result of this accident, and he therefore shares a room with Vincent in which he donates the dreamy invalid his urine, blood, and even skin samples in return for money.
After he fixes up his appearance to look more like Jerome, Vincent finally applies to be on the team for a space mission. He instantly gets a position with an interview consisting of only a blood sample rather than any questions on ability. When he meets coworker Irene, we find that even the relationship between the sexes is genetically based: Irene presents him with a strand of hair to be genetically evaluated to see whether she would be a worthy partner.
Every morning Vincent must scrub himself raw in a shower to get rid of the loose skin that may fall off and reveal his identity in this extremely controlled world, and apply a skin sample filled with blood to his fingertip to be pricked as his entrance into work. Controversy ensues upon the murder of the space mission director near which Vincent’s eyelash is found, and Vincent must fight for his dreams, lying to authorities and living as a “borrowed ladder.”
In this world, the class system of elites versus lower workers on the bottom reminds me of The Time Machine’s divided workers, strictly separated based on how they were born rather than their skill level. There were certainly also historical parallels to be made in this movie. One such comparison is that between DNA discrimination in Gattaca and racial discrimination in the real world, especially when it comes to advancement and job opportunities. Vincent says “I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.” The eugenics of the world of Gattaca, or the control over birthing a “perfect” population was also eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Eugenics is a prominent feature in Gattaca, and it is no coincidence that the real Jerome requests to be called “Eugene” when he gives over his identity to Vincent. The parallels run into the eugenics class system of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This genetically engineered form of mass reproduction reminiscent of cloning is called Bokanovsky’s Process, and is used to mass produce the Gammas, Epsilon and Deltas who perform working class servant jobs. This idea even has strands that go as far back as the metals myth employed by Plato in The Republic: the “noble lie” told to citizens that everybody is born equally, some just have gold in their veins while others have iron and therefore perform skill-based roles rather than leadership. Everybody must therefore be content in their class and career because it is embedded in one’s very being, quickly shutting down many incentives for revolt or effort to change the way things are.
The coldness of the movie’s colorless setting also reminded me of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.” Every surface area is engineered to be as flawless as the DNA of its elite, clean and sterile. It seems as if this world is a dystopia for the invalids, and a utopia for the valids. However, with a little rebellion and enough determination, Vincent makes it into space and concludes:
For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… maybe I’m going home.
Cool fun facts about the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/trivia
The most interesting fact I found from this is that the name Gattaca came from an arrangement of the four beginning letters of the nitrogen bases of DNA (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine).