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Not in Their Genes
A Review of Andrew Niccol's Film Gattaca

S. Joel Garver

When Cain slaughtered his brother Abel in the field, sibling rivalry had its start. And the psychology of such rivalry is complex. It wasn't only that Cain resented the favor that Abel had received from the Lord, but that Cain coveted that favor too and Abel stood in the way. Moreover, by killing his brother, Cain could strike out against the very "system" that he perceived to have so wrongly held him back.

It is this kind of rivalry--and its redemption--that propels the narrative of Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca. While Niccol may be better known as the screenwriter of The Truman Show, it is the careful scripting and subtle detail of Gattaca (which Niccol both wrote and directed) that more fully demonstrates his craft. Though Niccol started directing television commercials in London, that experience only served to deepen his insight into how what we take to be "reality" is so much blind faith in our societal "given" and our personal enmeshment in a constructed economy of desire.


I

In the "not too distant future" of Gattaca, it turns out that the "natural" way to have children is "in vitro," giving parents the ability to select for those genetic features that will give their progeny the best chance to excel in life, to be considered "valids". But as the film's premise is pursued, the world that emerges is one that is less than perfect. First, virtually flawless people are never at ease, especially around others of their kind. All maintain a superficial cool reserve--self-assured, deliberate, matter of fact, dispassionate--lest any defect be allowed to emerge. Thus part of the 1940s noir character of Gattaca is to be accounted for not simply as an attempt for atmosphere, but more so as a careful outworking of the conservatism, tension, and intrigue that would characterize such a culture.

Second, the expectations of this world of practical genetic perfection cut both ways. Not only is one expected to meet his or her full potential, but one is equally seen as limited by it. So the assistant director of the Gattaca corporation--an elite space exploration industry--at one point quips, "No one exceeds his potential." Thus once a person has met expectations, nothing more can be asked and if one's best is still not good enough, then defeat is all that is left.

Third, interpersonal relationships, even romance, are governed this same falsely perfectionistic logic. A potential mate--through her shed eyelash or his spittle on a wine glass--can be instantly mapped and categorized by a local geneticist's office. Relationships between co-workers, family members, and lovers are all strained by the taut cords of anxiety, suspicion, and rivalry. Despite all efforts at perfection, the result is not ideal, but less than human. After all, is it not our differences, shortcomings, quirks, and foibles that make us who we are and challenge us to dream of what we might become? As the opening of the film asks, quoting Ecclesiastes, "Consider God's handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?"

Finally, given that not every pregnancy is a planned one, even in the most perfect of worlds, the society of Gattaca is one that is also defined by class--not now based upon gender or race or economic position, but upon one's genetic inheritance. Those children who are conceived in love, and not a lab, find themselves categorized as "in-valids", fragile, sickly beings, relegated to menial tasks, with no hope of upward mobility. It's not, of course, that discrimination on the basis of one's chromosomes is legal--that would be "genoism." Still, one knows one's place.


II

The central character of Gattaca is Vincent Freeman, a "faith-birth" or "god-child," as they are called, conceived in the back of a car by the sea, born as his mother Marie gripped her rosary--born with a supposed heart defect and a 99% chance of death by the age of 30. When we meet him, however, Vincent is already in his 30s and is employed by the very selective Gattaca corporation, all ready to launch "up there" into the heavens, to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, one christened after the primeval deities. But how is it that Vincent has exceeded his potential? Is not heredity destiny? The answer is that Vincent is a "de-gene-erate."

When Vincent was born, he was to be called Anton ("worthy of praise") after his father, but his father did not deem him worthy to bear his own name and so, on a whim, called him "Vincent" instead. As a child Vincent was handled like fine crystal and, though he was bright, couldn't enter into a decent school since he might prove an "insurance liability." Yet, Vincent was fascinated by his world and more so by the world up there, in the heavens.

When Vincent's more carefully designed brother Anton was finally born, their rivalry commenced, reinforcing in Vincent a sense of his own inferiority and in Anton a sense of his own worth. Anton wouldn't even play at "blood brothers" with Vincent, blood being more a source of distinction and classification than of mutual identity and bond. This rivalry eventually became ritualized in a primal contest of endurance, swimming out to sea to discover who would first turn back, exhausted. Vincent, naturally, was always the first.

Then one day the unthinkable happened. Vincent lived up to his ironic name ("conquering") and not only swam further than Anton, but also put himself at risk to save his brother who had begun to sink, his energy spent. Assured that anything is possible, Vincent left home and family to pursue his dream to go the heavens.

Though necessary, hard work, exercise, and study would not be enough for Vincent to go to Titan, Saturn's cloudy, distant moon. Something more would be needed. It is in this connection that we meet Jerome Eugene Morrow, a man as close to genetic perfection as possible, whose identity Vincent might purchase and assume, a "borrowed ladder" and a ticket into the Gattaca corporation. Undertaking this exchange also classifies Vincent among the lowest of his kind, a "de-gene-erate."

Jerome, however, is not quite perfect. What would a perfect person be doing, selling his identity? He had been an Olympic swimmer, possibly the best that had ever been, but his best was still insufficient for the gold. Burdened with a mere silver medal, Jerome had stepped in front of a car to ensure that he would never be second best again. Nevertheless, Jerome muses, he couldn't even do that right and ended up stuck in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. In order to maintain the lifestyle to which he was accustomed and to avenge himself upon the system that had so wronged him, Jerome determined to sell his identity to an inferior, an "in-valid." Vincent manages to pass as Jerome Morrow while working at Gattaca, though Jerome, in his hardened, cold superiority, tells him, "You'll never be me."

Vincent, it soon appears, is not the only one at Gattaca who is less than perfect, though he is the only one who has his position by stealth. A fellow employee, Irene Cassini--no doubt a beneficiary of some anti-genoist policy--works with Vincent at Gattaca, despite her "acceptable risk" of heart disease. She might have her dream too, but she seems defeatedly to accept her culture's appraisal of her worth, relegated to clerical work despite her intellectual gifts and beauty.


III

But this is not the conclusion of the story. If it were, it would be as if we had left Abel's blood crying from the ground and Cain wandering through a wasteland. Happily, there is more--the promise of redemption remains.

Though Anton may never have accepted Vincent, Jerome proves a friend who sticks closer than a brother. By giving of his own flesh to Vincent, of his shed blood and water, Jerome learns compassion, sacrifice, and love. Through these graciously given gifts, and the daily purging of his own dead flesh and defilements, Vincent does indeed become another "Jerome," one who is "of the Holy Name." And Jerome becomes "Eugene," one who is truly "well born." Out love for his adopted brother, Jerome is able to rise above his own "perfect" genetic endowments--poignantly signified by a spiral stair, an echo of DNAs double-helix, "made crooked" by God.

Going up to Titan was Vincent's goal for which he worked and strove, but Irene seems a reason to stay. As they both succumb to the heart dis-ease of love, Irene begins to realize that her worth is not defined by her genetic lot or society's ranking and that love without conditions or suspicion makes for new possibilities. Irene ("peace") puts Vincent's mind to rest and allows him to see that reaching Titan is not the only goal, but that much remains for him here.

Still, Vincent will ascend to the heavens, up there to Titan. He may not know what lies ahead for him there, he tells Jerome, but he plans to find out. Vincent notes that Titan is a place that Jerome would like, since there his paralyzed legs wouldn't matter anymore. When Vincent finally leaves for his heaven, Jerome thanks him. After all, while Jerome may have given Vincent his body, Vincent gave Jerome his dream. Through this exchange Jerome has accepted who he is--no longer merely second best--and, in his own complete sacrifice, expects in some way to accompany Vincent in his heavenly travels.

As Vincent goes to board the ship, he will pass through a tunnel, but this will not be the first tunnel he has traveled. Earlier, with his Irene, Vincent passed through a tunnel and came to a road which, through an almost blind faith, he was able to cross. From there he accompanied his love in a marvelous vision of light and it was clear that his faith had led him to a present heavenly Titan--Irene Cassini herself, the namesake of that Gian Domenico Cassini who had discovered four of Saturn's moons. With Irene already his, Titan may no longer be a goal to be grasped, but it is still a gift to be accepted.

In the midst of the tunnel leading to the ship, Vincent again meets Lamar, Gattaca's physician who administered their regular substance tests. Vincent is unprepared for this meeting which might derail all his plans, but that is of no matter. Lamar--whose own son would like to apply to Gattaca, but isn't quite up to snuff--has known all along of Vincent's true status and wishes him the best.

In the end, then, Vincent's dream is achieved, but only by the grace of another. And this, it seems, is at the heart of Niccol's film. Grace abounds as much as life-giving baptismal water, as vast as the seas. It is by the sea Vincent is conceived; in the sea he passes beyond sibling rivalry; overseas had occurred Jerome's life-giving injury; above the sea Vincent makes love with his beautiful Irene; and through the gift from Lamar ("the sea") he finds his dream at last.

But this grace takes a particular form as it is worked out the lives of these characters. Only in love--the suffering, sacrifice, and service for another, and the unconditioned acceptance of the other and his or her deeds--only in that kind of love is redemption wrought. While those who consider themselves "valid" are identified on their cards by a sign of infinite potential, is it any wonder that those who are "in-valid"--and those who at length recognize themselves as such--are identified instead by the sign of the Cross?