A dystopia of human excellence in “Gattaca”

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Photo of Gattaca cover

Before getting into the thick of things, we must ask the reader to forgive us for sounding a bit pretentious as we lay some principles of proper science fiction. 

Science fiction is meant to look at a trend present in modern society, amplify it and present its conclusions in a different society. Much like how getting too close to a painting can obscure the image as a whole, distance provides clarity. Separating an idea from the current societal atmosphere can help the audience be more objective in judging it. 

One of the most famous subgenres of science fiction, the dystopia, can show the results of technology removed from ethics, the consequences of major government overreach, the rebuilding of society from nuclear war or many other events. 

“Gattaca” is one such dystopia focusing on immoral technological overreach. Directed by Andrew Niccol, “Gattaca” — a play on the four nitrogenous bases that make up DNA: Guanine, Adenine, Thymine and Cytosine — focuses on a spirited man named Vincent who was born without augmentation of his gene line. 

Meanwhile, Vincent’s younger brother Anton was given the best that gene editing can provide: intelligence, physical prowess, good looks. In other words, the best that man could appear to be. 

Vincent, having a few genetic deficiencies, is disqualified from achieving his dream of becoming a space traveler and has to do menial tasks to obtain a living alongside with other unaugmented humans. 

Eventually, through the aid of an augmented human crippled in an accident, played by Jude Law, Vincent is able to trick the administrators at the space facility to gain employment and train as an astronaut. 

A murder mystery threatens to break Vincent’s cover. Combined with his growing interest in one of his female workers Irene Cassini, played by Uma Thurman, Vincent must confront realities about the society around him and his own moral code.

Conceptually, “Gattaca” is incredibly interesting. The potential possibilities of genetic modification with crops and livestock have been routinely discussed over the past two decades, making the notion of modified humans a possible future reality. Combine this with the film’s added mystery element, it makes for a compelling idea. 

While the idea of widespread genetic modification may have seemed like a distant pipe dream during its original release in 1997, viewing it in 2021 gives the movie great value in its sheer relevance. With scientific advancements being made that seemed unimaginable only mere years before, “Gattaca” demonstrates what humans are showing themselves to be capable of as time progresses. 

The risk with this is that we can lose what it means to be human: the movie’s characters are valued not for their inherent dignity or callings, but rather their genetic code and achievements, demonstrating what can happen when a flawed conception of “progress” blinds people to each others’ humanity. 

But a good concept in theory doesn’t always mean a good theory in practice; when it comes to the story and how the movie flowed, there is much to be desired. The overall plot has many holes that are either not answered or poorly explained. 

For example, it is not clear how a society that can create genetically superior human beings in a laboratory cannot seem to restore Law’s character’s ability to walk. His character’s motivation for wanting to fight the system, what he wants to gain or even why he wants to help Vincent in the first place is never properly explained.  

Irene is an incredibly weak female character and her appearance derails the plot and steers it away from its original conception as a dystopian, sci-fi thriller to a standard action and romance movie. One such scene is when Vincent and Irene escape the detectives and then proceed immediately to do things that Aquinas would consider to be a violation of the marital act. 

The script was poorly written — one term used for invalids is ‘de-gene-erates’ and yes, it is as cringe as it sounds — and the ideas of the movie were not fully fleshed out. The plot only focused on certain individuals rather than the overall society, which could’ve done more justice to the interesting ideas that “Gattaca” was trying to capitalize on. 

This movie should not be taken as a wholesale condemnation of genetic modification: it has been shown to confer tremendous blessings and benefits for people in areas struggling with food shortages and crop failures, as well as for helping to combat and cure a host of diseases. 

That being said, we cannot lose sight of what makes us human, which includes being unique in the various talents and abilities that God gives us and the crosses we have to bear in this life. Nothing will ever go completely the way we want it to go, and so it is up to us to rise to the occasion and do what we can with what God has given us, no matter how heavy the cross may be. 

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