By Adam Livingston
Video essay form here: https://youtu.be/UviBXplj5uA
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 science fiction film, Gattaca, has had a great resurgence in relevancy in recent years. The concepts just continue to grow more pertinent with time. One of the themes explored, the existence of a predetermined reality, is a timeless philosophical ponderance, while advanced reproductive technology has given rise to multiple bioethical issues.
The hero of Gattaca, Vincent, is an imperfect man who dreams of partaking in space travel. Unfortunately, the possibility of space travel is exclusive to those who are “valid”, or those who have had their genetics altered to perfection in the womb. The idea of tinkering with destiny by using technology for human enhancement is an interesting one, and we’d by lying if we said that we wouldn’t be interested in that as a species. As humans continue to gain real-world insight from great works of art, I think it should be necessary to look to Gattaca as a case-study of the potential applicability of this technology. There is a huge 1984-vibe going on in this movie. Perhaps dystopian science fiction has always been preparing us for our ongoing journey into the unknowingness of the future. Who knows, maybe someone’s interpretation of what the future may be will help us combat an upcoming class struggle?
In Gattaca, the human genome and all the mysteries of DNA have been solved. This isn’t too unrealistic, considering the amount of research and the advancements made in this field in real life. If parents have the option to select their child’s genes before birth, why wouldn’t they? If they could avoid disease, defects, and unwanted traits, that seems like a no brainer. In turn, why wouldn’t companies take advantage of a genetically perfect segment of the population? It seems like this would add a tremendous benefit to the economic productivity of the workforce. Perhaps this would produce such a financial inequality that we would see greater levels of crime and dissatisfaction with society. We’re already seeing similar effects in the improvements of artificial intelligence and robotics. Low-skilled and low-earning jobs are potentially in danger from increased automation. One of the reasons why Gattaca works as such great science fiction is that we hardly have to suspend our belief in the possibility of the events occurring on film.
A world in which this level of genetic discrimination exists is a real possibility. Children who are born without first undergoing genetic manipulation are called “naturals” or “invalids”. Invalids have limited hope for escaping at least a moderate level of poverty, or a career in something else than a low-skilled field. As a result, these individuals also become social outcasts. The public that’s depicted in the film places a mass value-judgment, where genetically perfect people are viewed as much more valuable than others. The ethical questions that this kind of society raises are fascinating. In talking with other people about Gattaca, I’ve found that opinions on the different moral issues presented in the film are pretty highly correlated with one’s political views.
It comes down to if you think government intervention is necessary or justified to make this kind of genetic discrimination illegal. Would making it illegal stop it entirely? Are these corporations really coercing invalids into an undesirable life? How undesirable do the lives of invalids have to be before government power should be involved? Hypothetically, this could be the future of affirmative action programs.
There are great questions to ponder even if we leave the government aspect out of the picture. Is it morally acceptable to genetically engineer humans? How about if a pregnant mother finds out that the son or daughter she is carrying has a propensity for alcoholism or obesity, would it be immoral to not fix these so-called undesirable conditions? If given the opportunity, should we give our children the best possible chance to succeed in life? “What determines the essential identity of a human being? Is it his genetic code, or is it something else?” What will happen when humans decide to start playing God?
The films seems to be a complete renunciation of eugenics, as the protagonist’s goal is to beat the odds and prove to himself that he is capable of doing the job of a genetically perfect human. Does he have potential to be more than what he seems to be destined for? This idea of potential is thought provoking. Gattaca brilliantly raises the issue of determinism. Are all events including human action, ultimately determined by causes external to our own free will? Does free will even exist? If we aren’t responsible for our actions, can we even be held accountable for any perceived wrongdoings?
These are questions that philosophers have debated for thousands of years, but still boggle our minds. The inspiring nature of Gattaca is brought by Vincent’s determination to use his free will to overcome his expected lifespan of 30.2 years, and to achieve his dream of space travel. The reason why this film works in a unique way as a thriller is because the conflict that happens is actually a conflict of philosophy. This kind of accessibility to the thematic elements of the movie is extremely rare in Hollywood productions.
In my own interpretation of the film, I think that whatever ends up happening to Vincent works as an argument in favor of a predetermined universe. If he is unsuccessful in his attempts to become more than what he’s supposed to be, than what we’re told about him all along is true. He is not destined to be anything special. However, if he is successful in his attempts, that just means that his actions can be explained as the result of genetic and environmental factors. As much as we like to think he ends up winning because of his perseverance and determination, we can’t forget that he was destined to live the life of a handicap, and to die early. There’s a realization to be had when we remember he was raised alongside his genetically-superior brother. It only makes sense that he would feel the need to assert his worth by attempting to overcome his shortcomings.
Vincent’s drive and desire to succeed also had nothing to do with the car accident that paralyzed Jerome. Without the chaos of the universe intervening on some helpless individuals, others will not ever get the chance to triumph. It’s extremely unlikely that Vincent would have ever had the chance to pose as Jerome if not for that fateful day.
It’s not my intention to make the point that Gattaca is an exercise in futility in the war between free will and fate. Actually, it’s quite the contrary because I’m not quite convinced that I’m right. These issues have been debated by people much smarter than I for so long, I’m sure there’s more to them than I realize. This is why if you don’t agree with my interpretation, tell me! Leave a comment!
This is why I love Gattaca. It spurs honest, intellectual debate about important and relevant topics. If you haven’t seen the film, get ahold of it, press play, and start taking notes. You won’t regret it. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong by the day when we reconcile the issues raised in this movie, and we use that as a starting point to build a better future for ourselves. I know that one day I won’t want to be competing for a job with a genetically flawless Jude Law.