Original release: October 24, 1997
Running time: 106 minutes
Writer and director: Andrew Niccol
Composer: Michael Nyman
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, Loren Dean
What’s in our DNA that makes each of us so unique? I’d like to think that who I am is determined by what I do, learn and experience along the way, but what if that wasn’t the case? What if my life entire life was already determined by what’s inside of me and passed on through generations?
Nearly every cell in our bodies has the same DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The information is stored as a code, made up of four different chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of around 3 billion bases and more than 99% of those are the same in all of us.
Yet we’re not all the same. We’re all unique in so many different ways and it’s less than 1% of our DNA that makes us that way. It might not sound that much, but when we do the math, that amounts to 3 million different sources of genetic information.
Gattaca is a film which puts this math into perspective and tries to re-shape the human condition through genetically engineered offspring. Its characters live in a not-too-distant future where those who can afford it can choose to have their children engineered to be born with the best possible chances in life. They no longer have to be short-sighted, have heart problems or any other ailments. Any pre-dispositions that indicate they might be alcoholics, murderers or rapists can also be eradicated. In short, it’s a process that serves the greater good.
The engineered offspring are called ‘valids’, whereas those who are conceived naturally are called ‘invalids’. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is an invalid. He’s nearsighted, suffers from a heart defect, is likely to develop mental problems and his life expectancy is 30 years. His younger brother, Anton (Loren Dean), is a valid, chosen to be engineered by his parents so he would have the life his brother wouldn’t.
Vincent knows his chances of achieving his dream to visit Saturn are slim to none, yet he doesn’t give up – although he’s constantly reminded of his genetic inferiority. As kids, the brothers used to swim out to sea together, racing each other to see who would be first. Anton always won, but Vincent always worried how he would be able to make it back to shore and it prevented him from winning. On their last swim together he ended up saving Anton who had swum out too far.
After facing much discrimination and prejudice, Vincent decides the only way he’s going to succeed is with a little help.
Jerome (Jude Law) is a former swimming champion who’s lived a life with all the benefits of being a valid, but an accident has left him paralysed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He agrees to let Vincent use his genetic identity with his blood, hair, tissue, and urine samples to pass the screening so he can get into Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, the most prestigious spaceflight conglomerate. In return, Jerome wants to able to live the life he has become accustomed to.
Vincent is selected for a manned spaceflight to Saturn’s moon but a week before he’s due to leave, there’s a murder at one of Gattaca’s labs and his real DNA links him to it, making him a suspect. Meanwhile, his co-worker, Irene (Uma Thurman), becomes romantically interested in him, but she thinks he’s out of her league because his DNA is superior to hers.
As the murder investigation gets underway, we also find out how Jerome’s accident really happened and we start to realise when it comes to human beings, DNA isn’t everything. If it were, then Jerome would have won a gold medal instead of silver and the murder in the lab would never have occurred because it wasn’t written in the murderer’s DNA profile.When Anton re-emerges in the story later on, he asks Vincent how he was able to beat him when they swam together. “I never saved anything for the swim back” he replies.
While everything in his DNA says he should fail, Vincent succeeds through the sheer force of will and nothing else. He proves that while there might be 3 billion sources of genetic information in him, that 3 million which makes him different from Anton, is what saved his brother’s life despite any pre-determined physical abilities.
Gattaca goes far beyond the gloss and romance of what we usually encounter in Hollywood movies to tell a story that’s more rooted in science and ethics. Although we become emotionally invested in its characters lives and want to see Vincent succeed, we also become aware of the new class divide that’s risen up in the society he lives in. He says at one point
Although the mapping of the human genome is now complete, analyses of the data will continue for many years and we’re still a long way off from being able to genetically engineer the perfect society. Whether or not we would eradicate the very thing that makes us unique as individuals in the process, is a question of ethical and spiritual values and a film like Gattaca is a great example of why some things are better left to chance.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .