Gattaca (1997)

Last semester, I took Bioethics as one of my courses. For a week’s assignment, the class was asked to watch the sci-fi film, Gattaca, and then write our thoughts on it. The following is what I submitted.

Right from the start, Gattaca makes the viewer think about the two views on eugenics. The movie opens with two contrasting quotes. The first, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, asks: “Consider God’s handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?”. The second quote is from Willard Gaylin, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and he states: “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature. I think Mother wants us to.”

Set in the “not-too-distant-future”, the movie paints a society where couples can choose to have their children designed to perfection by genetic manipulation. It is seen through the eyes of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) who is conceived naturally and therefore has to cope with genetic discrimination to achieve his dreams of travelling into space. In Vincent’s world, there are two classes: the valids and the in-valids. The valids are conceived through genetic manipulation whereas the in-valids are those who, like Vincent, are naturally conceived. The valids are guaranteed wordly success even before they are born because they are “blessed with all gifts required for the undertaking …. [and] a genetic quotient second to none.”

In the pre-eugenic era, it was held that “a child conceived in love had a greater chance of happiness” and “ten fingers and ten toes were all that mattered” but in Vincent’s world, that is no longer the case. We hear him ask himself while thinking about how he came into the world, “I never understand why my mother put her faith in God’s hands rather than those of her local geneticist.” Genoism – the discrimination of naturally conceived citizens – is the new racism. It is illegal but “nobody pays much attention to the law”. Naturally conceived individuals have to be content with menial and low paid jobs such as laboratory cleaners and so Vincent resorts to something drastic to get the space career he has always dreamed of. Of himself, he says this: “My real resume was in my cells. I belong to the new underclass, no longer determined by social status of the colour of the skin. Now we have discrimination down to a science. They don’t care where you were born. Just how. Blood has no nationality”

Vincent poses as a valid by using hair, skin, blood and urine samples from a donor, Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a former swimming star paralyzed by a car accident. With Jerome’s genetic makeup, Vincent is hired at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, and assigned to be navigator for an upcoming trip to Saturn’s moon Titan. To keep his identity hidden, Vincent goes through a thorough daily ritual. “Each day I would dispose of all my loose skin, nails and hair as possible to limit how much of my in-valid self I’d leave in the valid world,” he describes. “At the same time, Jerome prepares samples of his superior body matter so I’d pass for him. Customised urine pouches for the substance tests, finger-tip blood sachets for the security checks and vials filled with other traces.”

Throughout the film, I found myself thinking about the questions raised by the two quotes the viewer is presented at the beginning. The film makes for a provocative and often uncomfortable viewing as the viewer is faced with the possible consequences of “tampering” with Mother Nature and “straightening what God hath made crooked”. The viewer is reminded of the ugly consequences of discrimination (whatever form it may take) and the dangers of seeing an individual for what he can do rather than as a person who is a valuable for simply being himself. And yet, the film also sends the message that the perfect beings – the valids – are not so perfect after all for they have their own cross to bear – which is the suffering under the burden of perfection.

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