Science Fiction Film History - Gattaca - A stolen identity that concerns more than a t-shirt and hair color but the complete biological fragments that make up genetic identity

Gattaca (1997)

"There is no gene for the human spirit"

Gattaca (1997) is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made, yet it is a film which has escaped much close scrutiny, and which didn't generate huge box office on first release. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a genre in which big-budget special effects blockbusters get all the attention, and intelligent, inspiring movies are mismarketed to the wrong audience?

The trailer outlines the science, at the expense of the human story at the core of the narrative.

Gattaca deals with a future that draws ever-ever closer where parents dictate the genetic makeup of their child. Before gestation, embryos are screened for diseases, addictions and other undesirable qualities, and a so-called "Valid" is produced, a child who has his or her lifetime's potential mapped out for them, with perfect 20/20 vision. This is science fiction operating within the "not-too-distant" future, representing a world which is totally familiar, apart from this central trope of genetic engineering, and the prospect of regular rocket launches to the furthest moons of Saturn. It also deals sensitively with the recurrent sci-fi issues of what exactly it is that constitutes humanity: are these perfect children with flawless genes truly human?

"They used to say that a child conceived in love is a child of happiness. They don't say that anymore."

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is one of the last of the 'In-Valids', conceived in love rather than in a test tube. Upon his birth a DNA test suggests he has a 99% chance of developing a heart defect and dying before he is 30. This condemns him to a life lived in fear of early death, a life where he is a source of constant terror to his parents, where schools bar him for being an insurance liability and where he is denied the chance to achieve his dream — that of being a space pilot. His father tells him "Son, the only time you're going to see the inside of a space shuttle is if you're cleaning it."

But Vincent refuses to accept this brave new world, and seeks a way to deny his genetic destiny. He strikes a deal with a crippled Valid, Jerome (Jude Law), and steals his genetic identity. What makes us who we are? Gattaca's answer to this is biological, a meticulous series of close up shots of skin flakes, eyelashes, urine, pinpricks of blood — all the substances used for DNA testing. Vincent layers the biological fragments that make up Jerome on top of his own identity, and applies for the space programme under a false guise.

The film (written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, also responsible for The Truman Show and S1M0NE) is slow moving and spiritual, dealing with the human relationships that still fester even when humans are genetically perfect. Vincent and Jerome are binary opposites — one determined to succeed despite his genetic failings, one drinking himself to death as a challenge to his so-called perfection. The process of adopting another's identity is not represented as a one-off con trick: Vincent needs to be perpetually on his guard, continually scattering another's skin flakes over his computer keyboard, never going out without a bag of Jerome's urine strapped to his thigh. It is difficult being someone else, particularly when you fall in love, as Vincent does with Irene (Uma Thurman). His conflict is painful — has she fallen in love with him or with Jerome? Vincent has to address some very fundamental questions about what maketh man.

Rather than extrapolating from the brightly colored fashion typified by the t-shirt maker of today, Niccols' future, as represented in the film, owes much to a stylised vision of the 1940s particularly when it comes to tailoring. Men are suited, with slicked back hair, or wear knitted vests over their shirts. Style is all about uniformity, and bold clothing choices are uncommon. Vincent's early memories of growing up in a world of genetic discrimination are sepia hued. Interiors are wood-panelled, with elegant swirls of metal fitments. Manners are impeccable. Silence rules the workplace. Order is everywhere — apart from Jerome's apartment. The dream of going into space is shown as a worthy one for a young boy. As in The Truman Show, Niccol gives us a world where order has been imposed from above, and it is an order which is consistent with the idealised representations of the world represented on TV in the early 1950s. There is no room in Gattaca for disorder, crime, disappointment; order has been imposed and everyone will move in their genetically pre-ordained patterns. Again, as in The Truman Show, the story comes from resistance to those set patterns. In seeking to conform genetically, Vincent challenges the whole system: the individual against the machine beloved of so many sci fi narratives.

As the film moves towards its conclusion, throwing difficulty after difficulty in our hero's path (his true identity is suspected of involvement in a murder, Jerome's continuing drunken existence becomes increasingly problematic, Irene suspects), unusually, for science fiction, there are no high speed chases, no spectacular special effects. The most nerve-wracking moment is when Vincent, in a car with Irene, has to remove his contact lenses (clearly, Jerome would have 20/20 vision) at a police road check. he then has to drive on without them, at night, with the other traffic on the highway reduced to a blur of lights and noise. This is a truly terrifying prospect for us myopics. Gattaca represents a world which is all about the details, and getting the details absolutely right. One false move, one wrong skin flake for Vincent would mean his unmasking. This is a strong enough premise to carry us through to the end of the film without seeking a climactic ending.

Science fiction at its thoughtful best.

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