Gattaca, is a futuristic film that delves into the world of human genomes, nucleotides, DNA, and how one’s genetics are the determining factor in whether a person succeeds and goes far in life, or whether one is trapped into a menial and servile position in life.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, and released on October 24, 1997, Gattaca builds its premise around the controversial subject of genetic engineering and how it might lead to a socio-economic class divide, now that the human genome project was completed in 2003.
Gattaca is a film that awes and inspires with its message that nothing can crush nor stop the human spirit: from the innovative and opening credits of the main title (created by Imaginary Forces), where the remnants of fingernail clippings, hair strands, and skin debris fall into piles, to the clever insertion of the letters of the DNA nucleotides guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (hence the name Gattaca) inserted into the actors and film creator’s names, the film Gattaca is a beautiful, mesmerizing and original film whose message still stands the test of time more than 13 years later.
The film stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, Loren Dean and Alan Arkin.
Hawke plays Vincent Freeman. He is a “God-child”, a “faith birth”, so-called because his parents (Jayne Brook and Elias Koteas) decided to have him the natural way without using advanced technology to create a perfect baby with no abnormalities or genetic defects that would cause diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. No sooner than he is born, he is immediately subjected to tests which will divulge not only his future health prospects, but, even how long he may live.
The second time his parents have a child, they decide to go to a geneticist, played by Blair Underwood. With four embryos, two girls, two boys, in vitro, they indicate they want a brother for Vincent, and to have him genetically engineered to be perfect, what society calls a “Valid.” This child is named Anton, after his father. He is played by Loren Dean.
Since Vincent is born the normal way, he is considered an “Invalid’, by society, and destined to live out his life on the lower rungs of society. As Vincent so aptly states it, “We now have discrimination down to a science.”
While growing up, he and his brother have a rivalry that exteneds to their swimming in the ocean in a race against each other. When they were children, Anton would always win. But, one time, when they are teens, they swim again, and this time Vincent wins. Vincent has now realized that he can accomplish more than what is expected of him, and he leaves their parent’s home to strike out on his own.
Even though he does not have the right genes for it, Vincent has longed to be an astronaut. He goes to work at a NASA-type organization galled Gattaca, which has a space program that prepares employees for travel to the largest moon of Saturn: Titan. Vincent works as a janitor and while working his shift he is always aware of the launches that are performed daily, launches that send the chosen few to the coveted Titan.
Vincent wants so much to be a part of this elite group of star voyagers, that when he sees one launch after so many he states: “I was never more certain of how far away I was from my goal than when I was standing right beside it.” There is no gene for faith, for drive, for ambition, for perseverance—-but, Vincent will not let the fact that society saw his skills, his capabilities, his resume in his cells, stop or hinder him from his dream. Vincent decides to go for broke.
Enter Jerome Eugene Morrow (played by Jude Law). Jerome, who goes by his middle name Eugene, is a valid, a vitro destined to have the very best that life and society can offer. But, Jerome can no longer attain those things. A former Olympic swimmer, he is now bound to a wheelchair, a cripple from a car accident. Even though he is a Valid, he suffers from being a “made man”, a perfect human. Thus Eugene had a burden to bear just as Vincent has to bear his burden. Vincent refuses to let society have the last word on what he can or cannot attain.
For a Valid who has fallen on hard times, Eugene has something that he can offer Vincent: his genetic DNA . With the help of German, a shady DNA gene broker, played by Tony Shalhoub, Vincent can now accomplish his goal to be an astronaut.
But, at the time, Vincent also has something he can offer Eugene, though at the time neither one realizes this, but they both will, later on in the film.
The three set about preparing Eugene’s DNA in blood samples, skin shavings, hair follicles, and urine for Vincent to use to pass the interview he has at Gattaca. Vincent has one problem–he is two inches shorter than Eugene. Even here, Vincent would not let that stop him. He undergoes a surgical procedure, limb lengthening, that adds inches to his height, thus as he states: “Now I am two inches closer to my goal.’
Vincent passes the urine test (his interview) after meeting Dr. Lamar (played by Xander Berkeley). He is accepted into the program, and is now on his way finally to the moon of Saturn. But, a problem occurs.
One of the administrators at Gattaca is against the space program and wants to see it disbanded. To make matters worse, he was getting close to exposing Vincent’s secret. When he is found dead one morning, and the cops come to gather evidence, bad luck would have it that an eyelash of Vincent’s is found at the crime scene. Unbeknownst to Vincent, his brother, Anton, is chief of the investigation of the murder. The head scientist over the program, Director Josef, played by Gore Vidal, wants the program to go on, and with another launch due the following week, he will let nothing stand in the way of the continuance of the program.
In the meantime, Vincent has met and become enamored of another recruit of the program, Irene Cassini, played by Uma Thurman.
As the officer assigned to the case, Det. Hugo (played by Alan Arkin) is dogged in his determination to find the killer. Irene is put in charge by her supervisor, Director Josef, to help Anton search the files to find evidence of the killer through the employee’s DNA database. While going through the files of employees at Gattaca, she finds out that Vincent is neither whom nor what he pretends to be.
At this time, Vincent’s brother Anton has found out as well and has asked Irene to take him to Vincent’s apartment. Vincent sees Irene leaving with his brother, he calls Eugene and alerts him, and Eugene swings into action. Eugene stays downstairs, and since the entrance to his home is upstairs, he has to pull himself up the stairs before Anton and Irene arrive to ring the doorbell. Desperately crawling up the stair case to get himself into position and character, to keep the ruse going, Eugene frantically makes his way upstairs just as Irene rings the doorbell. He buzzes them in, they enter,and Irene sits by Eugene, as Anton starts his round of questions directed at “Vincent”/Eugene. Just as Anton decides to go on a search of the downstairs area of the home, he is called back to Gattaca: the murderer has been found.
After Anton leaves, Vincent comes in and seeing the look on Irene’s face realizes that because of this impersonation of Eugene, he may have lost her forever.
Later near the end of the movie Vincent goes back to Gattaca that evening and confronts his brother who was waiting for him. Anton feels that Vincent has no right to continue on in his desire to attend the launch since he is masquerading as a Valid, but, Vincent, tired of how society has already treated him, lashes out at his brother for his narrow-minded view of the indomitable will of Vincent to succeed in this dream he has had for nearly all of his life:
“Is that the only way you want to succeed is to see me fail?”
They swim one last time, and here Anton realizes that Vincent would not go back to the circumscribed life he had lived. Anton questions how Vincent was able to pull off his ruse, and Vincent states: “I never saved anything for the trip back.”
Vincent never saved anything for going back to the old life that suffocated him–for him it was no turning back—–all-or-nothing.
On the day before Vincent is to take the launch, he and Eugene discuss how this friendship they have built has affected them both–and as to whom received the better deal. Vincent is nervous about his trip, but, he has come too far to turn back, come what may. Vincent would be on Titan for a whole year, and he asks Eugene what will he do with himself all that time. Eugene states that he has his books, and, besides, he too is going away on a trip.
The next day arrives, Vincent is ready for the launch, and he must now take a final test that will either expose him, or open the door to the wonders of interplanetary travel.
Gattaca is one of the most memorable, inspiring, and thought-provoking films made. The tyranny of racism, sexism, shadism, ageism, heterosexism–assaults upon the humanity that were used to keep a person down and in their place supposedly have now been pushed aside in the future where one’s genes–one’s resume of their future— is found in what can be deciphered from their DNA. In this brave new world of tomorrow, if your birth is left to the chance of Mother Nature, you may end up with a hereditary disease, but, if you are a vitro engineered child, the world may be your oyster.
But, my question with this movie is with Vincent’s working as a janitor at Gattaca. Is it to be accepted that now racism, sexism and all the other isms have gone the way of the dinosaur? Is racism no longer a part of the not-too-distant future?
What is to stop parents only a few years into the future from not only deciding their baby’s gender–but, also, what their baby’s race and skin color will be? Even the geneticist in the film, a Black man, acknowledges this not-so-far-off possibility in the lines he states to the parent’s type of child they want: “Dark hair, hazel eyes—fair skin.” In the future, skin color will more likely be fair, than dark, when parents decide what their child’s exterior features will look like. Even the actors/actresses in the film have model-type bodies—thin and tall. With the negative and racist views against dark skin, it would be no surprise if fair skin becomes more prevalent in the future with genetic tampering.
Gattaca is a lovingly filmed movie, from the dialogue, the acting, to the double-helix staircase in Eugene’s home, to the chiaroscuro effects of the cinematography.
It opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions on how the now completely mapped human genome will be handled. What wonders —and terrors—will we leash upon the world with this brave new technology?
The music is very good as well. Composed by Michael Nyman, the soundtrack is very evocative and suits the film well.
The dialogue is great with some of these memorable lines:
“We now have discrimination down to a science.”
“Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s all that used to matter. Not now.”
“Keep your eyelashes on your eyelids where they belong.”
“My eyes are prettier.”
“I’m bored of talking to you, no I’m bored. I’ll call you back.”
“Two samples, two days. Either the suspect went back to the scene of the crime to get a drink of water -but I don’t know anybody that thirsty- or he still works there.”
“No one exceeds his potential.”
“If he did?”
“It would simply mean that we did not accurately gauged his potential in the first place.”
Even the names are a play on human character and outlook: Eugene (well-born, noble)— eugenics, derived from the Greek word eugenes; Vincent (conquering, victorious); Freeman (free man); Jerome (of holy, sacred name), also, Jerome/genome; Morrow (tomorrow), as in the future. Uma Thurman’s character is named Irene Cassini. Cassini is the surname of the 17th century Italian astronomer, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered the prominent gap in Saturn’s main rings, as well as the icy moons, Iapetus, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys. The space mission in Gattaca is destined for Saturn. On October 15, 1997, NASA launched the Cassini space probe bound for Saturn. It carried the Huygens space probe, which was dropped into Titan in early 2005, and discovered ground under the clouds.
More than anything, Gattaca is an uplifting film. No matter who tries to turn you around, no matter how hard society tells you that you are nothing, that you can never, nor ever will reach and exceed your potential, you should push on and at least try to make your goal. To always keep your eyes on the prize.
The human spirit cannot be crushed.
It may be beaten down, tramped into the ground, but, it will rise. It will save nothing for the trip back.
It will triumph.
The unknown can be frightening. At times, it can be downright terrifying. But, the inner resolve and strength to say “I can” and “I shall” will always be a part of the human spirit to face and meet challenges that lead one’s feet onto the terra incognito of ourselves that is yet to be discovered.