Culture > Movies

Film: Who's the Designer?

Movies | Gattaca's utopian world of designer genes is still fallen

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Imagine a futuristic place where all sexism, racism, and homophobia have been wiped out. Instead, everybody with a real job is a test-tube baby designed by a geneticist to have the perfect collection of Mommy and Daddy's genes. But the "love children" who are conceived the old-fashioned way are declared invalid and only serve menial functions in society. Instead of resumés, job seekers give blood samples, and potential husbands and wives exchange hair specimens.

That's the dystopia of the movie Gattaca. This marriage of Orwell, Huxley, and Hitchcock plays off recent headlines about cloned sheep, The Bell Curve, and the Human Genome Project. Vincent (Ethan Hawke), our invalid hero, born without benefit of genetic engineering, enters the space program by beating the system. He finds a genetic wunderkind (Jude Law) who has been paralyzed in an accident. In exchange for room and board, he borrows Mr. Perfect DNA's identity and tissue samples. He leaves his job as a janitor and moves up to the big leagues.

Vincent lives his life in constant fear that someone will discover he is a "God-child." Every day he scrubs himself down to rid himself of excess dead cells that could give him away and collects specimens from his partner to use for identification.

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The message of this movie is that genetics can give a probability of a person's potential, but that there are no certainties. Furthermore, contrary to certain strains of contemporary thought, identity is not solely determined by genetics. And attempts to shape humanity by means of designer genes are formulas for disaster.

Invalid Vincent envies his valid brother's favored position and eventually outperforms him. He succeeds through his training program on his own merits, though he wouldn't have even been accepted because of his genetic makeup. Vincent is a star student and becomes eligible to fulfill his dream of flying in space.

Everything is going fine until the mission director winds up dead. The cops vacuum the building for every leftover human cell and discover one of Vincent's real eyebrow hairs near the crime scene. The dead supervisor wanted to cancel the mission, thus increasing the suspicion. Enter Uma Thurman as the love interest and two detectives (Alan Arkin and Loren Dean) looking for the killer. (Gore Vidal, the leftwing novelist, has a supporting role as Vincent's boss.)

This relatively nonviolent movie owes more to black-and-white film noir than to most of today's Sci-Fi conventions. There's little gadgetry or special effects floating around. Instead, Gattaca focuses on plot over action. Regrettably, the movie drags, and important scenes build little suspense and look forced. Faster pacing would have added some much-needed excitement. Neither Hawke nor Thurman gives any passion to the performance; they wind up as sterile as the alcohol prep pads used before a DNA test.

Gattaca beats its genetic identity theme to death. When Vincent is ready to go up in space, his crippled cohort gives a farewell present: a lifetime supply of urine and blood samples. The name "Gattaca" derives from the alphabetical protein sequence of human DNA. The movie, to its credit, shows there is more to life than biochemical determinism can admit, though it isn't quite sure what that is.


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