Gattaca is a 1997 American science fiction film written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, with Jude Law, Loren Dean, Ernest Borgnine, Gore Vidal, and Alan Arkin appearing in supporting roles. The film presents a biopunk vision of a future society driven by eugenics where potential children are conceived through genetic manipulation to ensure they possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. The film centers on Vincent Freeman, played by Hawke, who was conceived outside the eugenics program and struggles to overcome genetic discrimination to realize his dream of traveling into space.
The movie draws on concerns over reproductive technologies which facilitate eugenics, and the possible consequences of such technological developments for society. It also explores the idea of destiny and the ways in which it can and does govern lives. Characters in Gattaca continually battle both with society and with themselves to find their place in the world and who they are destined to be according to their genes.
The film’s title is based on the first letters of guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, the four nucleobases of DNA. It was a 1997 nominee for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.
In “the not-too-distant future”, eugenics (in the form of conceiving “improved” children by genetic manipulation) is common, and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class. A genetic registry database uses biometrics to instantly identify and classify those so created as “valids” while those conceived by traditional means and more susceptible to genetic disorders are derisively known as “in-valids”. Genetic discrimination is forbidden by law, but in practice genotype profiling is used to identify valids to qualify for professional employment while in-valids are relegated to menial jobs.
Vincent Freeman is conceived naturally without the aid of genetic selection; immediately after his birth, his DNA is tested and indicates he has high probability of developing mental disorders, will be myopic, has a heart defect, and his projected life expectancy is only 30.2 years. His parents regret their decision, and their next son Anton is conceived with the aid of genetic selection. Anton surpasses his older brother in many aspects including in a game that they call “chicken”: both swim out to sea, and the first to give up and swim back to shore is the loser. Anton always wins due to his superior physical stamina. Vincent dreams of a career in space but is constantly reminded of his genetic inferiority. Later as young adults Vincent challenges Anton to the game of chicken. This time it is Vincent who pulls ahead while Anton runs into trouble and begins to drown. Vincent saves him, then leaves home shortly thereafter.
Due to frequent screening, Vincent faces genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut is to become a “borrowed ladder”, a person who impersonates a “valid” with a superior genetic profile. He assumes the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow, a former swimming star with a genetic profile “second to none”, who had been injured in a car accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Vincent “buys” Jerome’s identity and uses his “valid” DNA in blood, hair, tissue, and urine samples to pass screening. To keep his identity hidden, he must meticulously groom and scrub down daily to remove his own genetic material.
With Jerome’s genetic profile Vincent gets accepted into the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, the most prestigious spaceflight conglomerate, with a DNA test being the entire interview process. He becomes Gattaca’s top celestial navigator and is selected for a manned spaceflight to Saturn’s moon Titan. A week before Vincent is to leave on the one-year mission, one of Gattaca’s administrators is found bludgeoned to death in his office. Police discover an eyelash of the real Vincent on the premises, making him the prime suspect. A paper cup used by Vincent is also found after he gave it to Caesar the cleaner.
Vincent must evade increasing security measures as his launch date approaches. Simultaneously, he becomes close to one of his co-workers, Irene Cassini. Although she is a “valid”, Irene knows she will only ever be picked for lesser missions due to slightly elevated risk of heart failure. Romantically attracted to Vincent, she clandestinely has what she thinks is his DNA analyzed. The results confirm that he is out of her league, leaving her wistful, but Vincent makes it plain that he does not care about her genetics. Jerome (generally known as Eugene) also suffers from the burden of his genetic perfection; when he won only a silver medal in an important competition, he became increasingly depressed. While intoxicated, Jerome confesses that he did not have a car accident, but rather, had attempted suicide by jumping in front of a car, but only paralyzed himself from the waist down.
After numerous close calls, Vincent’s identity is revealed to a shocked Irene. Yet Irene comes to see Vincent for who he is and accepts him. The murder investigation abruptly comes to a close with Mission Director Josef under arrest. The director reveals that he murdered the administrator because the victim was trying to cancel the Titan mission. As Vincent appears to be in the clear he is confronted by the youthful chief detective, who is revealed to be Anton. Anton accuses Vincent of fraud and asserts that Vincent is unworthy of his place at Gattaca. Vincent reminds Anton of how he has made it thus far solo and that it was Anton who needed saving before, not himself. Having rationalized the competition he lost, Anton challenges Vincent again. They swim out, where Anton asks Vincent how he beat him before. Vincent explains that he never saved anything for the swim back. Anton turns back first but loses his way and Vincent again rescues him, this time by celestial navigation.
As the day of the launch arrives, Jerome bids Vincent farewell. He reveals that he has stored enough genetic samples to last Vincent two lifetimes. Overwhelmed and grateful, Vincent thanks Jerome, but Jerome replies that it is he who should be grateful, since Vincent lent Jerome his dreams. Jerome gives Vincent a card but asks him not to open it until he reaches space. As Vincent moves through the Gattaca complex to the launch site, he is caught out by an unexpected last urine test. However Lamar, the doctor, is unperturbed. He tells Vincent about his son, who is a great fan of Vincent’s and wants to apply to Gattaca. Lamar goes on to say the boy “wasn’t all they promised; but who knows what he could do”. He then ignores the test result, and tells Vincent to make his flight.
Jerome climbs inside his home incinerator, puts on his silver medal and lights the fire. The rocket lifts off with Vincent, and he opens the card from Jerome to find no words—just a hair sample. He is saddened to leave, despite never having a place in the world. He muses, “They say every atom in our bodies was once a part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving; maybe I’m going home.”
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