Short: Gattaca

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The impetus for finally writing this review of Gattaca has been watching Alive again (2-3 December) and then seeing October Sky (21 December). Both these films deal with achieving something against seemingly impossible odds, through endeavor and determination. Such achievements of the human spirit rather than miracles are a central theme of Gattaca.

I first saw Gattaca over two years ago (31 March 1998), but it has had a strong impact on my life since then. My mother had suggested it as a break from revision, saying it was about genetics and space, but I knew nothing more about it than that. I referred to it in my GCSE French Oral exam. My brother watched on video in November of that year, and I watched it again when the video went on sale (March 1999) and then on 23 May, in preparation for my General Studies AS exam. My notes and essay from that exam form the basis of this short. Gattaca was the third DVD I bought, but I did not watch it again fully until October.

Gattaca was one of the first films which I remember having an immediate impact on me, without too much thought afterwards. The film's imagery instantly captivated me. I, too, with all my imperfections, could have been Vincent Freeman. Perhaps I even look like him. Now, I regularly wear contact lenses to be more acceptable. Despite this burden, little when compared to others, I have achieved great things. The sibling rivalry and intense, but one sided, contest between Vincent and his brother Anton struct a parallel with my own life. Gattaca seized my mind and emotions.

Gattaca presents a dystopic view of the "not too distant future". The world dominated by the Gattaca Corporation, which represents a NASA-like organisation and determines the nature of the film as Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation does. Now your blood, hair, skin, eyelashes and finger nails are used to determine what you can do. In this sterile, clinical, mechanical atmosphere, the traces left by a handshake can be your entire job interview and your partner is chosen by a single strand of hair. If your genes do not meet the grade, you are doomed to be an invalid (a blatant pun, invalid) trapped in a low-end minial job and segregated into ghettos.

Even within Gattaca, even with genetic advantage, there is no freedom. There are regular substance tests - urine samples - and identity checks. Potential, measured from blood at birth, is the upper limit of your achievements, it can never be exceeded. The director notes that if you were to exceed expectation, it would mean that the expectation had been wrong. Even if you were genetically engineered and have the advantage of high intellegence and fitness, you can only progress in this society so far. Music is written to be played by pianists with 12 fingers exclusively. Gattaca presents a future "divided by the standards of perfection".

Hence come the two main, but different characters. One, Vincent Freeman is a god-child or faith-birth, the other Jerome Eugene Morrow is a valid, a made-man full of genetically engineered promise. Vincent, crippled by his condition, longs to be a astronaut at Gattaca while Jerome has been injured in a car accident and is now crippled by his arrogance and mental burden of having been cheated of his assured chance, the guarantee of his future success.

Vincent assumes Jerome's identity and rises through Gattaca to the point of being about to leave for Titan, while Jerome, now calling himself Eugene, provides the genetic credit in blood, urine, skin, hair and recordings of his ever steady heart beat. Their plan seems to have succeeded, when one of the directors is killed and an investigation discovers the eyelash of an invalid in Gattaca itself...

Within Gattaca, there is the third principle character, Irene. She is obsessed with a minor heart condition, which has only assured her a place at the back of the queue for space flights. She believes that Jerome could never be interested in her, because of this minor defect. Yet, he is attracted to her and when she gives him a hair to be scanned for such genetic faults, he lets it blow away. That is just how much significance is placed on something so insubstantial.

The Nazism and 1940s style are clear. Look at the hairstyles, the overcoats, the colours, the buildings. The detectives seem to be more like the SS or Gestapo than police men. The director of Gattaca even remarks that its employees must have minds and bodies to match. Yet, the segregation by birth - genoism - is made more apparent by the lack of other division in society. All races are present at Gattaca, which is also not a man's world.

Yet the message of Gattaca is a message of hope. There is no gene for fate and there is no gene for the human spirit. Things do happen by chance. Eugene lost the use of his legs in a traffic accident; the director was murdered by someone with a non-violent helix and the case was solved on a hunch, not by forensic methods. Then, in the closing scenes, Lamarr tells Jerome about his son:

Unfortunately, my son's not all that they promised, but then, who knows what he could do.

Genetics may determine your future and how you live to an apparently overwhelming extent, but there is still vast scope for individual achievement. Vincent not only gets into Gattaca and on to the mission to Titan, but also, more subtly, lives beyond the age of thirty. He and Irene find love, despite "broken hearts". Though she has a heart condition, she runs from the police and he crosses the road without his contact lenses:

You are the authority on what is and isn't possible.

There is also mental and spiritual achievement. Eugene overcomes his arrogance and the emotional set-backs of being disabled:

I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body, you lent me your dream.

Gattaca reveals the strong influence of chance. There may be a 99% probability of something happening, but there is still a 1/100 chance that it will not. This lone chance is just as likely as any of the other ninety-nine, although they outnumber it.

This lasting message is brought home by what becomes Jerome's epitaph, as his spacecraft lauches for Titan:

I was as good as any and better than most...
For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I'm suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Or course they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving, maybe I'm going home.

We are all formed from the carbon released by a collapsed star; we all begin as equals. With effort, even the greatest disadvantages can be surmounted.

Double Helix: a genetic code to be overcome Gattaca is a film of rich, genetic imagery. The opening shot shows a blue waste-land into which a huge white slab falls, followed by more. Later we realise that this is just a finger nail, followed by strands of hair under a microscope. The stair case in the apartment is shaped like the double helix of DNA and plays a vital part in the message. Eugene must scale this helix - surmounting this challenge without the use of his legs. While Jerome boards his space craft, he wanders along tube like tunnels, as if a child about to be born. The morning shower and removal of all Vincent's excess cells surely seems to be a shedding of his old identity, like baptism. Hollywood Jesus finds crucifixion and resurrection imagery as well.

The two colour sets, one of greys and subtle blues, the other of yellow and orange seems to be a visual echo of the score. Two reoccurring movements, the Morrow and God's Hands, imitate the oppressive and the hopeful in Gattaca.

The characters names and terminology are highly significant as well. Vincent Freeman (vincens, Latin - conquering) overcomes his disadvantaged birth and breaks society's bindings, hence freeman. Eugene (Greek - well born) could not be better chosen, but Irene (Greek - Peace) and Jerome are also fitting. So is the terminology. Besides invalid, valid, faith birth, vitro and god-child, someone impersonating a valid is called a degenerate.

It has been said that Gattaca's vision of the future is not ambitious enough, that it is too simple. This, however, is one of its great strengths. Gattaca is not concerned with creating a speculative impression of how the future may look, but is about the capabilities and attitudes already possessed by mankind. It is about the semi-present, not some far-flung image of "the Shape of Things to Come". So, regular cars are still used, although accompanied by a hovering sound. There are no robots. Space travel has not advanced beyond Saturn to intersellar voyages. Urine and intravenous blood tests are used to gather genetic material for identifying valids, not retinal scans. Even then that technology could be easily fooled and the murder case was solved using traditional detective methods. Gattaca's view of the "not too distant future" is too much like the present, or even the recent past, to be easily dismissed as far-fetched. Gattaca is more powerful because this dystopia could be just years away, not centuries.

Another criticism has been that Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman are just too perfect for anyone to believe that they are both not among the best of the valids. This strikes me as being the whole point of the film. They both seem perfect, but a single cell which can reveal an "unacceptable likelihood of heart failure" in thirty years' time - probably better than many people have - is enough to cripple Irene in the eyes of her valid "equals" and, more importantly, herself. Jerome tells her that he can see nothing wrong with her and lets the hair - given to be sequenced for approval - be caught by the wind. It does not matter to him, because he knows about chance, fate and the human spirit. Of course, Jerome too had a 99% chance of heart failure at age thirty, but he has continued to live. The obvious significance of the heart, is that they find love, despite their "broken hearts". The whole point is that there is nothing wrong with Irene, except for what she and others want to see as a handicap. Vincent, once uncovered, tells her:

They have got you looking so hard for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see.

The Script

An untitled text file containing an earlier draft of Gattaca is available on the web. Reading this reveals some interesting insights into the development of the presentation of the story.

There is another character, Napoleon, who also does not belong in Gattaca. He fears that a substance test will expose his drug addiction. This one character adds another dimension to the film's view of the future all to close at hand, a projection too real just to be dismissed. As compulsory company drug tests begin to appear in America, is a society in which your blood is your passport really that far away?

The script is far more brutely explicit when compared to the film's subtle suggestion through colour and with the score. Vincent's girlfriend, who leaves him for his own brother - a more viable prospect - makes her choice based on a semen sample. Before Vincent's birth, Marie is offered a state-funded abortion which she refuses shouting: "you don't know what it will be!".

Irene's obsession with what many would see simply as death from "natural causes" is more obviously stated. Seemingly perfect herself, she would rather use an ovum from an Egg Bank than one of her own, slightly floored eggs. Jerome realises that being told how you will die, with scientific certainty, has not encouraged people to prove that they are alive, but to fear this perscribed death from birth onwards.

                      (trying to be blase)
              You know how it is with these altered births
              --somebody told her she's not going to live
              forever and she's been preparing to die ever
However, as Gattaca shows, life expectancy is not certain; there is no gene for fate. An extra scene gives another example of the power of Chance. The Investigator regularly goes to see an invalid prostitute. Admiring her beauty, he refuses to believe that something so beautiful could have been created randomly.

As for Jerome, Eugene notes that he will be sent to discover the origins of life, but was never meant to be born.

These scenes might have helped to add clarity to Gattaca's message by being more explicit, but really are superfluous. They just provide extra, more repulsive examples. Sometimes, it is necessary to shock an audience to make them really sit up and take notice. Gattaca is a powerful presentation without the need to resort to terror tactics.


In terms of disc quality, the Region 2 Gattaca DVD is reasonable. The picture and sound are stunning, while there is a choice of full-frame (4:3) or widescreen (2.35:1). I cannot really say anymore about them because I do not like to judge a film on its nominal sound-mix or other technical specifications, such as what subtitles it has.

If you believe extras are more important than the film itself, Gattaca provides a list you can impress people with, but not much of substantial benefit.

Personally, for a film I have enjoyed watching and which has had such an impact on me, I would have liked to be able to listen to a commentary by Niccol. Instead there is the theatrical trailer and a "production featurette" - a euphemism as with so many DVDs for the trailer edited with sound-bites from the cast and crew. However, there is no commentary on the Region 1 disc. The only reason for the lack of one is, possibly, the mooted book on Gattaca, by Niccol, just like his Truman Show: the Shooting Script.

The disc also features a gallery of stills and posters. Both add to the list of extras without offering anything real. However, the poster gallery does include two items which I had not seen elsewhere or on the Internet. They are a pair of black-and-white with blue and grey portraits of Jerome and Irene placed above microscope views of human cells. The captions tellingly read: The Prisoner... His Cell.

The real bonus is in the deleted scenes. These were not subjected to the same processing techniques so are of a lower visual quality as is announced. One is just an out-take - "blooper" - from a substance test, which is mildly amusing but no great inclusion. Unfortunately, there is no indication of where these scenes would have fitted into the film as a whole leaving them without a context.

Many of these scenes extend Caesar's part and present him as aware of Vincent's deceit, but innocent, as in the script.

However the real benefit comes in the inclusion of the longer version of the scene in the 8th Day Centre and the Coda. The first adds two more probing questions to the interview. Vincent's parents are offered, at a cost, extra DNA sequences which might facilitate musical or mathematical ability. These cost too much, but the engineer replies that singing to the unborn baby might be just as successful. Chance is still a factor. Marie inquires about what will happen to the other embryoes. The engineer says that they are only other "human possibilities" - lost chances at greatness. The Coda, text scrolling from right to left, set to the Impromptu for 12 Fingers on a stary backdrop reads:

In a few short years, scientists will have completed the Human Genome Project, the mapping of all the genes that make up a human being. We have now evolved to the point where we can direct our own evolution.

Had acquired this knowledge sooner, the following people would never have been born:

A series of photographs of famous men and woman follows. There are scientists, writers, artists and politicians who all earned a place in history by their achievements, but who would have been invalids for epilepsy (Van Gogh) or dyslexia (Einstein) among other supposed defects. Then finally the scrolling text returns for its most thought provoking strike:

Of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own.

Here is the strength of Gattaca. Finally, it would have been impossible to not think about what would have happened to you, if you had been born into the not-too-distant future. Where would I, considerably myopic, be? Would I actually be? What about my brother being colour blind?

Think about that and remember what you really have. Remember the great chance you have ahead. But of course, without spectacles how long would I have survived before our current, technological society?


April - 18 July 2000.