Colombia/Tristar Studios, 1997. Directed by Andrew Niccol.

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GATTACA is the most important 'soft science fiction' film to appear since the end of the Cold War, according to David Bennett. This review originally appeared in the Melbourne publication Serendipity.
Soft Sci FiThe genre of science fiction film can be divided into two categories; hard and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction films are normally set in the future and have a loose storyline that is incidental to the high-tech gadgetry and special effects that serve as the main novelty and consequent attraction of the film. In contrast soft science fiction films are more concerned with storyline, plot and character development. The fictional technological advances set within such films, therefore, are relevant only to the extent that they complement the context of the story. This lesser emphasis on technological gimmickry means that the storyline possesses a greater capacity to be thought-provoking by conveying new social concepts. A soft science fiction film's cutting edge is often determined by the extent that it causes the viewer to re-assess the future with reference to their status quo.
GATTACA, in this respect, is soft science fiction at its compelling best. This is because the discoveries and technological advances currently being made in the field of biotechnology are such that the potential for the eventual application of genetic engineering to human beings is quite plausible. It is this context that makes GATTACA's storyline so frightening because it explores the possible consequences of moral dilemmas and hypothetical scenarios that are currently being raised. A very disturbing aspect of the film is the Orwellian world that it portrays. By analysing samples of blood, urine, hair, skin cells and so on, a person's "genetic quotient", age and occupation can be identified, therefore exposing them to discrimination.
Ever since the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s, scientists have been trying to map the genetic sequence (composed of the nucleic acids adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine1) in order to determine our exact genetic make-up - the chemical code at the core of all our cells. In 2001, scientists succeeded in mapping the entire human genetic sequence, or genome. 1 The initials A, G, C and T, used in the notation of gene sequences, are used in the film's title.
Story and CharactersGATTACA tells the story of Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who is naturally conceived. Within seconds of his birth he is seemingly consigned to the society's lower echelons when a blood test reveals that he has a 99% chance of future heart failure and a consequent life expectancy of 30.2 years. Vincent's younger brother Anton is artificially conceived and his genetic code is scientifically engineered to maximise his biologically in-built advantages of physical strength, which is complemented by a high intelligence quotient.
Unsurprisingly - and unethically - because of this society's utilitarian outlook, Vincent's parents, especially his father, favour Anton. The younger brother's smug condescension towards Vincent considerably compounds his sense of frustration and inferiority. When, at the beach, Vincent outswims Anton for the first time, he is filled with the confidence to break out of the confines that he has been allotted as an 'invalid'.2 Denied any hope of professional advancement or of realising his dream of becoming an astronaut by entering the elite GATTACA Space Academy, Vincent disappears and becomes a 'borrowed ladder'.3 This term refers to someone who assumes the identity of a person with a superior genetic quotient. In Vincent's case, the character Jerome (Jude Law), who provides DNA samples for Vincent, has been genetically engineered to near perfection but has become a cripple following an unsuccessful suicide attempt due to his intense disappointment with himself for coming second in a professional swimming race. Posing as Jerome, Vincent gains admittance to the coveted GATTACA Academy and, despite his supposedly defective genetic quotient, becomes one of its top students. Vincent's capacity to deceive his contemporaries stems from their narrow mindset, which prevents them from even considering that a supposed invalid could not possibly get away with being a borrowed ladder at GATTACA.2 The film's term for a naturally conceived human.
3 So called because the DNA molecule is shaped like a twisted ladder.
The only person suspicious of Vincent, GATTACA's Mission Director, is murdered just before Jerome (aka Vincent) is about to depart for his much-anticipated mission in space. The ensuing massive police investigation is conducted by none other than Vincent's estranged brother, Anton!
A fascinating dimension of the film is that character development occurs within the insecurities associated with living in a society where one's worth and status is solely determined by genetic composition. This is evident in the way the characters conduct themselves during the murder investigation, which is supervised by Anton. Although Anton discovers that his brother has infiltrated GATTACA - which leads him to incorrectly assume that Vincent murdered the Mission Director - he nonetheless invokes his authority to stifle his intensely shrewd and cynical second in command from pursuing leads that might expose Vincent.
Ironically, the Academy's Director (Gore Vidal) gives Vincent's girlfriend and fellow student Irene (Uma Thurman) the task of spying on the other students during the murder investigation. While Irene mistakenly suspects that Vincent is connected to the Mission Director's murder, she is unable, despite her investigative talents, to deduce that Vincent is actually a borrowed ladder. This is because Irene is in awe, if not initially attracted to Vincent because of her belief that he is endowed with a superior genetic sequence.
Gore Vidal is aptly cast as the Academy's patrician director. (This position is separate from that of Mission Director). Vidal's character contributes another vexing variable with which Vincent must content if he is to conceal his actual identity. While the Director professes his admiration for Vincent's professional virtues as a student, he later subtly transmits to Vincent his suspicion as to his true identity.
Arguably the most intriguing character of all is that of Jerome. "Burdened with the weight of perfection", he evolves from someone who is contemptuous of Vincent's worthiness to assume his identity, to a character who is fiercely determined that Vincent preserve his cover so that the latter's talents can be utilised. In one of the film's most poignant and crucial scenes the crippled Jerome adroitly manages to fend off Anton's attempt to expose both him and Vincent. There is also a seemingly minor character to watch for throughout the film, especially as he comes through for Vincent at the film's climax.
AtmosphereThe film conveys an ambience of a different time period to the one in which it is ostensibly set, in a way reminiscent of the Hanna Barbera cartoons The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Although GATTACA is set in the 'not too distant future', it has a discernable 1950s ambience, which might have been intended to convey the story's restrictive social settings as analogous to the regimented social mores that popular contemporary culture caricatures as attributes of that by-gone era. Furthermore, the film's original storyline is considerably enhanced by its costume design, lighting, music and special effects, which establish an at times eerie ambience that bolsters the story's suspense.
GATTACA's MessageTo the film's credit, the storyline supports the contention that a person's ability is derived from his character, rather than from his genetic composition. The qualities of perseverance, courage and determination, as well as the shrewdness that Vincent displays in overcoming the colossal obstacles arising from the discrimination he is subjected to, illustrates that the film views the determination of a person's worth by his genetic composition to be unethical. Indeed, the feelings of inadequacy that wrack Anton and Jerome highlight that character is a more important factor in utilising one's abilities than genetic quotient.
Historical progress has often been measured in terms of technological advancement and the extent to which attitudes have broadened with regard to treating all people with a respect that accords with their human dignity. In this sense, GATTACA highlights the potential dangers of a dichotomy arising from the use of technological advancement to deny human rights. Therefore, while scientific progress is to be welcomed, it should not be allowed to threaten either human dignity or the sanctity of human life.
The classic 1948 soft-science fiction book Nineteen Eighty-four was written by that brilliant British social democrat, George Orwell. He warned of the potential dangers of technology being harnessed by totalitarian regimes to monitor and control their citizens.
The film GATTACA similarly highlights the potential dangers associated with advances in biotechnology, particularly genetics, being utilised to undermine the sanctity of human life. Consequently the issues that GATTACA raises in this post-Soviet world are possibly as important as those that were raised in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. Such is the power of the soft-science genre!
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Copyright 1994 David Bennett