Welcome to (Ahead) Of Its Time — a new column that dives deep on movies praised for their foresight, expanding on the claim and its multitude of implications.
When exactly is “the not-too-distant future”? It’s a vague timeframe that could signify days or decades. In Andrew Niccol‘s 1997 sci-fi debut, Gattaca, it’s not so much a specific time as it is an imagined state of being, an endpoint in a trajectory that began before any of us were paying attention.
In this future, discrimination has evolved in tandem with eugenics, the process of selective breeding to create preferential genetic makeup in offspring. Genetically engineered babies grow up to be the superior members of society, lacking heart defects, predispositions to alcoholism, and any other potential hiccups on the road to human perfection. Children conceived in the traditional manner, without the help of geneticists, possess any number of genetic “problems” and are known as in-valids, becoming adults who perform menial jobs and die young.
In Gattaca, one of these in-valids, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), spurred by a desire for space exploration, dares to defy the fate encoded within his DNA. He makes a deal with Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically superior athlete who lost the use of his legs in an accident. Vincent assumes Jerome’s identity and hides in plain sight working at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. With his much-longed-for expedition to one of Saturn’s moons only a week away, Vincent/Jerome’s meticulous plan is put under the magnifying glass when a director at the corporation is found dead and police investigate, combing the building for any traces of DNA that don’t belong.
At the time of its release, Gattaca received generally positive reviews, although it failed to get a foothold at the box office, earning roughly a third of its budget back. Critical reception praised Niccol’s “provocative premise” and calculated visual style but detractors tended to lament the “predictably simple” narrative and perceived the understated, mechanical coldness of many characters as being flat and uninspired.
Across the board, however, critics noted the film’s relevance and prescience. Janet Maslin at the New York Times said it “succeeds as a scarily apt extension of present-day attitudes” and that it fits into the contemporary “culture of perfectionist striving.” Despite the film not being especially popular with moviegoers, in the years since its release, Gattaca has become a shorthand term for the future of eugenics and superior genetic predispositions.
A 2013 Scientific American article questions if we are “too close to making Gattaca a reality?” The article thoroughly details the scientific advancements in genetics that are being utilized by companies such as 23andMe and various clinics. He notes that many fertility experts vehemently oppose the idea of tailor-made children but that they also warn of the slippery slope that exists.
A more recent, and more concerning, article from 2019 promises that “Gattaca baby tests are finally here.” The article details an IVF testing company whose CEO saw Gattaca as a source of “inspiration.” It notes that the predictions promised by the company are not guarantees, but its tone regarding the potential of future predictive tests is far more hopeful and distressingly less apprehensive than the Scientific American article. While most came away from Gattaca with recognition of it as a cautionary tale, there are still those less uneasy about the slippery slope towards eugenics.
Much of Gattaca‘s prescience comes from its depiction of what life would look like with this form of scientific “advancement.” While its implications continue to permeate speculations on the future, the aspect of the film that has gotten lost in the scientific shuffle and even in much of the film’s initial reception, is the rich, human story at the heart of Niccol’s narrative.
In a 1997 review, Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter criticizes the characters as being stiff and mechanical and states that “there is no passion in the characterizations.” Indeed the characters are often reserved and cold, much like their environments. Niccol’s imagining of a future aesthetic harkens to the past and brings out the neo-noir tinges to the narrative. The architecture is a credit to Frank Lloyd Wright, the costume design is populated by classic silhouettes, even the high-tech cars are modeled on ’60s automobiles. It’s an empty, referential aesthetic that Niccol refuses to paint nostalgically; his palette is cool, his perspective distant, and while the film is composed and lit beautifully, it doesn’t fetishize the imagery. The imitation of the past is as calculated as genetically engineered children, and perhaps even more unnatural.
The seemingly passionless characters might lack a surface level spark, but this works in tandem with the world Niccol has created. Much like their environments, Vincent, Jerome, and Irene (Uma Thurman), Vincent’s co-worker and romantic interest, are refined and sharpened like blades, engineered to be icy and serene. They are mechanical and reserved in their mannerisms, which can understandably initially read as rather flat. But, as Roger Ebert keenly observed in his positive review, regarding the office’s long rows of unadorned cubicles and the workers behind them, “Why are ‘perfect’ human societies so often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides in our flaws?”
Indeed, what Gattaca weaves into every moment of the film is the suspicion that compassion and zeal go hand in hand with imperfection and chance. A meticulously tailored society, from genetics to aesthetics, is one that has forgone human qualities for the sake of a perfect vision of humanity. It’s a bleak and disheartening system, here utilized in a narrative of one man’s fight to be more than the fate decided for him, but its implications reach far beyond Vincent’s plight.
In order to venture beyond the known world and to the stars, Vincent has created himself in the mold of Jerome. From blood samples to stray hairs left on combs and from growing two inches through painful leg-lengthening procedures to living a life of near isolation in order to conceal the truth, Vincent has gone the proverbial whole nine yards. He’s done everything right to combat the science that damned him from birth. The blood that when sampled as an infant told his parents he had a life expectancy of 30 still pumps through his veins as he lives on borrowed time. He’s done everything right and planned for every variable.
Ultimately — spoiler alert — Vincent’s painstaking efforts take him far, within a stone’s throw of his dream, but they don’t take him all the way. He reveals the truth to Irene, sees a twist of fate divert the investigation away from him, and finds himself prepared for the launch. But the film’s final moments have one more card to play. One of the doctors at Gattaca surprises Vincent with a final DNA check before he can board the rocket. Without any of Jerome’s samples on hand to continue the lie, Vincent resigns himself to his fate.
But Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley), who has collected many samples from Vincent throughout the film, reveals that he’s known the truth all along. Dr. Lamar’s own son is genetically designed but “not all that they promised.” In Vincent’s success, the doctor sees his son and the potential for him to defy the limits of his world. Dr. Lamar erases the in-valid result and lets him go. As much as Vincent can calculate the best way to act counter to the science that has constructed this world, it is ultimately a human act of kindness born of unforeseen circumstances that becomes the final step towards his goal.
While Gattaca‘s scientific predictions can be shorthand for our own relationship with everchanging genetic technologies, only praising the film’s outlook on the future loses sight of the film’s actual perspective on human nature. This perspective is one that acknowledges the need for compassion to go hand in hand with innovation, it cautions what can transpire if this is not the case, and it rather optimistically concludes with the attitude that all is not, and all need never be, lost.
What Gattaca dares to imagine is that in a not so distant future — when science and eugenics have seemingly purified the human race, when we’ve all long since accepted the prospect of the weak dying out to help the strong, when we’ve lost so much of the chance and fate that makes us human in service of a better humanity — that, maybe, we’ll still care for one another, that we’ll display kindness and compassion. Many would bet Gattaca’s predictions got the science right; time will tell if it got the other part right, too.