Following the lead of Fritz Lang and Metropolis (1927), filmmakers have long chosen to explore dystopic visions of the future. Exploitation. Inequality. Oppression for the marginalized and lower classes. Materialist anesthetization for the elite and upper classes. These are the future’s projections that one sees in such films.
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 feature Gattaca follows this general outline, but offers a modulated dystopia. Here, discrimination, exploitation, and oppression stem not from an overwhelming bureaucracy as in Brazil (1985) or Logan’s Run (1976), but appear to have been willingly accepted as social costs by a risk-averse population, and particularly by parents wishing to see their children grow up to be strong, healthy, and objectively successful; that is, with jobs that afford both status and financial security. And while it seems clear that promises of genetic guarantees for this kind of success and security sprang from corporate interests, contrary to Blade Runner (1982) or the aforementioned Metropolis, the events in Gattaca do not appear to be driven by a capitalist hijacking of the state or legal mandates for the bioengineering of children. This distinction also separates the film from its literary references, notably Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
Gattaca’s narrative centers on Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke, and also played by Mason Gamble and Chad Christ). Conceived in love rather than a lab, Vincent starts life seemingly trapped by his genetic profile, a profile that reveals to schools and potential employers a high probability of early heart failure and myopia. He nonetheless dreams of traveling into space. Ultimately driven from the family home by constant comparison and competition with his engineered younger brother, Anton (Loren Dean, and also Vincent Nielsen and William Lee Scott), he eventually gets hired to the custodial staff at the Gattaca corporation, a leader in space travel. He studies, trains, and applies for his dream job, only to be betrayed by DNA tests which show him to be too much of a risk for space flight.
While it is illegal for individuals to be discriminated against merely for the circumstances of their birth, it is not illegal for employers to use the results of genetic testing in hiring. Naturally, these tests are used to demonstrate that certain candidates are more suitable for a job than are others. In this way, the film shows how a simple, even reasonable, desire to avoid heartache and failure becomes a discriminatory social system with a life and logic all its own. This is the system in which Vincent finds himself trapped.
To achieve his spacefaring dream, Vincent resorts to subterfuge. He is thrown together with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) by German (Tony Shaloub), a black marketeer specializing in the brokering of “borrowed ladders”, that is, the adoption of one person’s more promising genetic identity by someone whose prospects are otherwise limited.
Despite his virtually flawless genetics, Jerome, a world class swimmer, is cut down by an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. The risk averse society that works against Vincent also works against Jerome after the accident, and so the two men enter into a relationship wherein Vincent pays Jerome to provide him with blood, urine, hair, etc. that he can use to pass the genetic tests needed to work, and stay working, at Gattaca.
Vincent’s performance as Jerome also requires prosthetic devices, notably contact lenses, surgical leg extensions, and a daily ritual of scraping off and burning as much loose skin, hair, and fingernails as possible so as to reduce the risk of leaving traces of himself, as opposed to Jerome, around the office and in other public spaces. The stakes in this scheme are raised after one of Gattaca’s flight directors is murdered before Vincent’s just approved mission to Titan, and the police, led by Vincent’s brother, begin “hoovering” the corporate offices for physical evidence.
Vincent and Jerome’s relationship not only raises questions about the social effects of applying genetic engineering to humans, but also about the relationship of genes to identity. Are we just the sum total of our natural predispositions or do we have a will or spirit that transcends biology? Socially “valid” Jerome not only suffers a debilitating accident, but only has a silver medal to show for his profile, while “in-valid” Vincent manages to reach the height of his professional pursuits. Furthermore, Vincent twice beats his engineered brother in a game of chicken because he approaches the game with nothing to lose, while Anton is hamstrung by the promise of his genetic endowments.
If the film has a consistent message, it seems to be this: a risk-averse society ultimately only succeeds in doing just that, avoiding risk. This message is punctuated by the movie’s dominant mid-century modern aesthetic, which harkens back to the beginnings of the human exploration of space. Without the heavy risks assumed by those who first ventured it, space travel would not have become the routine event that it is in Gattaca’s version of the future. This is the historical irony of the film’s vision of the future.
Uma Thurman’s Irene Cassini and Alan Arkin’s Detective Hugo are also important to the film’s interrogation of risk. While both are considered to be valid members of society, they are also less than full members of the club. Like Vincent, Irene has a “weak” heart, which prevents her from ascending to the top of Gattaca’s corporate ladder. While Hugo’s flaws are not made explicit, his age and subordinate position to Anton, not to mention employment in the public, rather than the private sector, all suggest someone who is accepted as “normal”, but also someone who carries more “risk” than those in positions above him in the social hierarchy.
Despite being relegated to second or third tier status, both Irene and Hugo seem fully invested in the dominant social order. Hugo, in particular, can only envision the murder having been committed by Vincent or some other in-valid. The belief in the ability of the system to sort out who should do what undoubtedly offers these characters a measure of comfort that alternatives would deny. Not only can they assign responsibility for their “failures” to the natural order of things, but they can also hold onto the belief that, but for this or that flaw, they too would be on that flight to Titan. While Vincent and Jerome help to highlight the problems with Gattaca’s speculative future, Hugo and Irene work to show its persuasive power.
Even though cinematic visions of the future tend towards the dystopic, they can often end on notes of liberation. Such liberations can be world shaking, as in Metropolis or The Matrix trilogy, or they can be more personal and ambiguous, as in Blade Runner and Brazil, or, even Planet of the Apes (1968).
Once again, Gattaca follows a relatively moderate path. Irene and Vincent choose to embark on a romantic, and it is implied, procreative relationship despite their demonstrable genetic defects. On the one hand, this represents a rejection of social norms. On the other hand, not only is their no implication of this choice being part of a widespread social movement, but there is no post-script informing the audience as to what becomes of their relationship and their children, assuming they have any.
Rather, the revelation is embodied by Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley), in that the seemingly monolithic “genomist” order is actually shot through with resistance from those whose children may not fully benefit from the risk-averse society. However, while constituting something more than personal freedom for a single individual or couple, there is no suggestion that small forms of resistance such as those practiced by Lamar are aimed at actually overthrowing the dominant order so much as ameliorating it.
The new “Special Edition” DVD of Gattaca includes deleted scenes, a featurette produced for the movie’s theatrical release, a retrospective feature that includes interviews with Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, a primer on DNA research, and an outtake featuring Xander Berkeley.
The retrospective and the primer are the most notable of these extras. In addition to Hawke and Law, the look back on the film also includes producer Danny DeVito and a number of behind-the-scenes craft people, all of whom are justifiably proud of the work done on the film. It’s particularly interesting to hear how different departments dealt with the film’s budgetary constraints.
However, while Andre Niccol is praised repeatedly for his dedication and vision, you never get to hear from him directly. Indeed, the lack of a commentary track is disappointing, particularly for a “special edition.”
The feature on DNA research begins as a straightforward overview of different advances and discoveries culminating in the Human Genome Project but ends with a muddled message about the perils and promises of such research. Oddly, given the film’s narrative, the accent is placed on the promises rather than the perils. Indeed, the feature largely looks at the science independent of society.
If there is a notable missing piece to Gattaca’s excavation of the future, it is in the way that it elides the question of corporate promotion of genetic engineering as a “solution” to every parent’s fears about their children’s potential failures or inability to fit in. In implying that its social order emerges from some kind of “free market”, the film effectively naturalizes that order, leading one to believe that there is nothing to be done about the questions it raises about genetic engineering and the specter of discrimination.
Along the same lines, while the film clearly associates genomism with racism, it also implies that the former has supplanted the latter. When Blair Underwood’s geneticist remarks to Vincent’s mother and father (Jayne Brook and Elias Koteas) that they should want to remove any characteristics from their next child that might subject them to “social prejudice”, it is difficult not to think about some parents choosing to engineer dark skin pigmentations out of their children’s make-up. However, Niccol chooses not to address that issue directly, and, indeed, while the leads are all white, the film as a whole displays a multi-ethnic and multi-racial cast.
Whether and to what extent Gattaca would have been weighed down or enriched by addressing these issues is a debatable proposition. As it is, the film is quietly provocative, well crafted, and, in some ways, a subtler meditation on the future than some of the recognizable classics cited elsewhere in this review. Where it ultimately fits into the universe of speculative fiction will undoubtedly depend very much on what Andrew Niccol’s complete body of work ends up looking like – and that what be known until sometime in the future.