When the control of your birth is taken out of the hands of fate, and laid bare on a designers monitor, the value of a person changes. In Gattaca what genes make up a human is worth more than any other skill or trait that they could posses. The film was envisioned by Andrew Niccol , who both wrote the screenplay and directed the film as his take on what the future would become if the process of genetics was honed to perfection. The film was made in the US, and released in 1997. This was an important time for genetics, as great strides were being made in decoding the human genome, also the use of DNA in criminal prosecution had since opened the door that everyone could be identified and quantified. A major thought process evolved from this notion and the interest in the genetic potential and meaning of humanity was at the forefront of culture during this time, as society came to grips with what the future technology of genetic manipulation and tracking would mean for the world.
In the society of Gattaca the pinnacle of genetic technology has lead to DNA being the sole determination of worth in society. The main character of the film, Vincent Freeman, lives with the stratification every day of being born natural, and as a result never being good enough in the eyes of society to achieve his dreams. Often compared to his brother who was born of design, a major theme of the movie is explored in the early competition between the two. As Vincent had to learn, beating the system and by extension his brother required more than the effort he put in. While they were designed to win, the way for Vincent to achieve his goal of space flight, or to beat his brother in a swim is to take drastic measures. As a child this means risking his life to keep swimming beyond safety, but as an adult this means for Vincent to discard himself as a person entirely. The trick to getting his opportunity to fly is held in the plan of adopting another genetic identity, one that is more than he would ever be able to be worth to society without. Doing so shows the theme of futility in attempting to rise beyond your natural state in this new system of genetic worth. While Vincent through cunning and guts is able to fool society, his own identity as a person had to be forfeit as the payment, in essence Vincent lost his life to this society in terms of his individuality. The main conflict between brothers resurfaces as Vincent’s long awaited time of flight comes, his brother acts as the cop who plans to bring his brother in as either an invalid a murderer, or both. Though Vincent is innocent, the dichotomy between the two in this game of cat and mouse shows how far the Genetic identity is worth. That with the proof of finding Vincent that he would be convicted of murder without question, brings home the fact that your genes are everything, and if you don’t fit the laws of society will remove you from the equation. The only reason that he is not caught sooner is by managing to beat his brother once again in the race that defined their childhood; which he manages a win only through a suicidal mentality and a trust in his chances. Through the same mixture of luck, and the support of those who saw his worth apart from his genetics does manage to achieve anonymity from the system. However, the final theme of the film is that you cannot escape the rules of society, a person can discard them to forge there own path, a bittersweet revelation if nothing else.
These rules of society in Gattaca are simple and clean, in fact there is only one value of note to society. This of course is the genetic code of the individual, that is designed to be the best, and as a result society becomes haven to the value of elite individuals over all other traits. The norm that arises from an elite expectation, is that a child will be of a designed birth, and those that choose to have their children in a natural way are seen as fools. To keep this norm inline with what is expected from couples, the sanction of Gattaca are seen in the way that society handles the people with inferior genetics, by separating them from those who meet the criteria to be considered valid. This method of seperation based on genetic validity of being deemed invalid for that area, is the main form of stratification seen in the film. For those with the classification of an invalid, many career opportunities, forms of education, and benefits of life are kept under lock and key. The society’s reasoning for this is that an invalid would be a liability for the company if resources were spent to develop them in whatever they chose but something happened based on their genetic makeup, such as a disease for example. The secondary effect of this stratification between genetics results in a discrepancy between male and females. While this stratification seems to be only in numbers, the vast majority of people in this world seem to be male, and since gender is assigned at birth this is a societal stratification indicative of a patriarchal society. This idea of stratification by gender is further reinforced by the fact that all of the directors at Gattaca are older males, and not female. While race and age may not be a factor anymore it seems that even in a world stripped down to pure choice that biases will still be produced among the elite.
The main institution of the elite, those who are deemed valid are the economic and political giant that determines the future, Gattaca corporation as the movie is named after employs these individuals almost exclusively. The major source of economy in the film is pointed towards space travel to gain both scientific and material resources from space. While there is never any notion of any major shortage on earth, the need for space travel as an economy is great enough that Gattaca cannot afford any risks to the efficiency of the operation. Thus beyond the basic maintenance workers all employees of Gattaca must be of the genetic elite. Taking the hint of this superiority bias, the educational system can be seen turning down Vincent as he did not meet their genetic criteria. Based upon the withholding of the highest quality of education those with genetic gifts are set up to gain entry into other institutions based upon the quality of their blood sample, and not the merits of effort. While the model of efficiency is king in Gattaca, in the family setting of Vincent in childhood the family institution is seen to be supportive to the best of the inferior children to the best that society will allow. It is not that Vincent’s parents did not want him to succeed, however the vast pressure of society crushed their will to see Vincent as anything more than a sick child and a weaker individual than his brother. Among a society that sees invalid’s as a liability and a burden it is no surprise that the method of social change to combat this ideal is to become a person of worth. The invalid can trade genetic places with a valid in an agreement to gain the status needed to make life opportunities happen for them. In the mainstream society this method of cheating is a criminal act that is seen as an attempt to usurp the title of a valid from those who rightfully have it. To an invalid the act of swapping is the only way possible to seek change in a system that does not care for you as a person, but only for the value that your code brings to the table. The reality of this trade is that because genetic material is the worth, the public will cease to see you as anyone else but what your code says, it is the death of the individual but as a form of data.
To go along with the sterile concept of genetic elitism, the technology of Gattaca has grown to emulate this goal. The main method of power on the planet seems to be derived from solar power, which offers a clean alternative to the global warming issue seen in other films. Cars also run off of a similar fuel cell that is clean, and prevents the issues of carbon footprint. Space travel follows a similar pattern of improvement, with a cleaner and faster propulsion system paving the way for humans to explore the stars in Gattaca for future colonies and resources. All of the other advancements in technology over the time in the 90’s when it was filmed is the mastery of genetic technology. In Gattaca the entire human genome has been more than mapped, it has been quantified and categorized into an easily changed format for birth. The result of this is the perfect elimination of diseases and inadequacies that may plateau natural humans. However, as a cost to this little progress in the way of conventional medicine seems to be made as the technology to treat basic wounds and conditions such as a heart murmur cannot be treated, or at least no one cares to fix these problems in those who were not born to gene manipulation.
In a similar vein to the other technologies, while the environment of the film seems sterilized and spared from excessive pollution damage, it also seems to be underdeveloped with urbanization being more like the conventional times, rather than a sprawling metropolis world space. I would argue that this balanced environment is due to the genetic control, which leads to population control. As more parents had their children engineered the need for multiple attempts at children lessened, which in turn lead to a lower birth rate that meant less stress on the environment. The built environment of Gattaca is entirely sterilized, to both avoid contamination and to boost efficiency in the workers.
The effect of this society that is bound to the law of a genetic identifier, is one that could exist in the future of the real world. There has already been a push for getting genetic testing in children for diseases, and the idea of human gene manipulation has already reached a primitive phase. In the film, these early attempts to create a safer world though genetics may have one over the populace, and then the culture grew more dependent on this technology as a source of comfort against the uncertainties of life. Many parents would want to give their child the best chance that it has in life, and with the genetic manipulation this would be possible. As a result of this positive thinking for genetics, its value rose until the norm of a genetic elite became embedded in the populace. Just like in present day, corporations would wish to make use of a growing efficient workforce, so they began with simple genetic testing, that established the status of an employee. While on the political spectrum they could not discriminate based upon genetics, just like in real life the rules were bent for the sake of making money at the end of the day. An unofficial layer of discrimination towards the invalids left them with little to look forward to. The idea of rising up in status had been killed when they were born, so they chose new identities to fight the system, just as any society that is maltreated will make an attempt to rectify the situation to better quality of life. As far as the element of a true life Gattaca emerging in reality, the probability is high that this will occur. It can be argued that as it is human nature to better ones self, that as a society whatever it needs to advance itself will be used and eventually embraced as the new norm for a perfect human.
By creating a thought provoking peak into a very probable and realistic society gripped with the thought of attaining perfection. Gattaca was well received by critics which applauded the film for its reflection on a future with untested technology, and that the turn that humanity could make as a result. In terms of awards the film was nominated for the Oscars and Golden Globe, but only won awards in foreign categories such as the Bogey, and London Critics Film Awards. While the budget for the film was 36,000,000 the return box office total of around 12,000,000 shows that it was more of a critical success than a commercial block buster. This can be attributed to the lack of flair in the movie as it had more subdued special effects and a more discrete plot that emphasized suspense and not action. Despite the set backs at the box office, Gattaca managed to have an impact by being the first exploration of genetic technology as a path to the future. A path that many films sense have emulated, with genetic engineering since becoming a common trope in the Sci-Fi genre. A pioneering movie to show the potential and dark side of genetics, Gattaca gives the recipe for an entirely plausible future world, while cautioning humanity on the drawbacks of this path.
“Andrew Niccol.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d.
Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. By Andrew Niccol. 1997.