Saturday, July 24, 2010


In 1932, a book was published by Aldous Huxley called Brave New World. It was required reading for me in high school and one that I actually found enjoyable. It was one of the first early sci-fi works to touch upon the idea of a genetically engineered society. Of course, the science of genes were not understood at the time so Huxley had people born in test tubes and modified by the addition of chemicals to cause them to develop in predetermined ways. Even this was quite prescient for its time, but the society he created was purposefully exaggerated in order to make a point about man's over-reliance on science. As the genetic sciences advanced, it opened up all sorts of very plausible future societal changes that could be explored in the literature. New ideas continue to pop up even today. Some films deal with particular abuses or experiments by corporations like The Island, Jurassic Park, and The 6th Day. But I've never seen a film that deals with the effect of genetic technology on society in general better than Gattaca (1997), a film that never got the attention it deserved and whose very title was constructed from the genetic alphabet.

It's kind of sad today to see so many sci-fi films use some kind of pseudo-scientific concept of DNA to explain away all manner of ridiculous physical transformations and manifestations. Two big offenders that come to mind from TV land are Star Trek: TNG and the modern version of The Outer Limits. But Gattaca is one of those few films that uses truly plausible technological advances to illustrate how those advances might change our society. Specifically, if we could instantly read a persons genetic code, from zygote to full grown adult, and from that obtain a wealth of information about them, from future diseases to physical traits and abilities, what would we do with that information? Would it affect the way businesses hire employees? How about university admissions, military recruiting, and dating choices? Naturally there would be privacy and discrimination issues involved, but in Gattaca we see a society that has fully accepted this information as no less public than a driver's license. And discrimination laws are not very enforceable.

In one of the early scenes, we see a couple consulting with a doctor about having a child. The technology exists that allows the doctor to collect both eggs and sperm samples from mother and father and then create via test tube a small set of zygotes free from genetic diseases and possessing the most desirable traits. He presents the possible child profiles to the couple and allows them to choose their future child's gender and other traits. Once selected, the chosen embryo would be implanted into the mother's uterus so she could carry the child to term. The scene was memorable to me precisely because of its haunting future plausibility. I love this quote from the doctor after the parents voice concerns about over prescribing their new child's future - "Keep in mind that this child is still you, but simply the 'best' of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result". Who wouldn't go for that?

In the film, this form of conception has become the preferred method, although some people are still conceived the "old-fashioned" way, like our main character Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke), who at birth is determined to have a 99% chance of heart failure by the age of 30. Vincent wants more than anything to be an astronaut, which in this future is a legitimate profession as mission launches to other planets and moons in our solar system happen regularly. But his condition, which can be detected in any blood, urine, hair, or other sample, makes him ineligible. He decides to take on the genetic identity of a perfect specimen of a man named Jerome Morrow, who happens to have broken his back and is now consigned to a wheelchair. There is a black market for such people to sell their body samples so they can continue to make money while giving someone with a less fortunate genetic profile a chance to beat the system, but it means one man goes into hiding for the rest of his life and the other must put on a life long ruse to fool the world into thinking he is really the other person. For Vincent, this means daily rituals of shaving off his own body hair and scraping off the outer layer of his skin, while taking samples of Morrow's hair and skin to leave behind in his comb and keyboard. It means taking hidden packs of urine complete with catheters to provide live urine samples from his alter ego, and finger caps with substitute blood underneath to pass the entry doors, which use pin pricks to obtain genetic identity (fingerprints were abandoned in favor of this more accurate method years ago). The story of how Vincent pulls off his dream, a romantic interest, and a murder case all provide substance, but it is the relationship that develops between Vincent and Jerome that provides the most poignant dramatic thread. The only drawbacks I would name are a complete lack of originality in the musical score and overuse of narration, but these are minor. And be sure to catch Ernest Borgnine in a neat minor role and little tidbits like Jerome's staircase being shaped like a DNA helix.

This is a great piece of writing, and what a delight that it was not adapted from a novel but was created for the screen by Andrew Niccol and then directed by him as well. He also penned and directed/produced two other excellently written yet highly underrated films - Lord of War and The Truman Show. I hope in the future we see more screen writers of this caliber in Hollywood.

1 comment:

  1. I love Gattaca! It is definitely one of the few films to truly address advances in genetic engineering and the slippery slope which could follow if it wasn't handled carefully.

    I actually also wrote a blog entry on Gattaca, please check it out when you've got time! :D

    I love science fiction and, although I wont only be addressing sci fi, there will be numerous sci fi movie blogs to come.

    Great blog mate! x