Notes on Gattaca
“ A man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for.” Browning
Gattaca is the space exploration company or agency of the “not too distant future”. The name comes from the four chemicals groups (nucleic acids) which make up DNA- Guanine, Adenine, and Thymine, Cytosine. The core story is about a kid who wants to be an astronaut. He is called a de-generate, an “in-valid”, and a “god-child”, as if the parent trusted “god” instead of modern medical science. The rags-to-riches story is one of America’s oldest and most revered literary forms. Janitor to Space jock. Underling to captain. We call them Horatio Alger stories for the early 20th century author who cranked out dozens of stories of poor kids who got rich by a combination of hard work and luck.
And it is a story of sibling rivalry, going right back to Cain and Abel, to Joseph and his brothers, and Jacob and Esau, and up through Brother Karamazov.
And it is a story of two men in partnership, and how a kind of love and devotion evolve out of a common goal. See Jonathan and David, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.
While the technology in Gattaca frightens us, in the end the technology triumphs over itself- as it always does. And the human element is actually what pivots the plot. The observation of which hand a man uses to hold his penis while he gives a urine sample. The discovery of “spit in your eye” that leads to the murderer. Crass human detail. The repeat of the swim contest.
Owing your life (twice) to someone over-rides moral and legal obligation. Is this honor among thieves? Is this like the pirates’ code? Or is it a legendary case of humans trying to balance the fate? Or maybe a simple exaggeration of pay-back and back-scratching?
And how about love over duty, in the case of Her and Him?
I think it is funny that these obvious elements are almost forgotten because the story has its own foreign compulsion. Perhaps the lesson is that we risk losing sight of the most obvious human elements as technology captures our attention.
Is there any acting in this movie? Is the director’s idea that in this future we do not show emotion? I cannot recall a movie with more deadpan, straight faces, except old black and white movies like Metropolis, where again people are under control of a social system which has become too controlling for human good. It is such as relief when we get some facial expression in the private scenes of lovers and brothers. But then at the end, we are back to poker faces, even between lovers and conspirators. Not even a wink. Is this prospect more frightening than genetic manipulation. Books like The Giver, 1984, and Brave New World also depict an emotionally flat humanity of futuristic rationality and conformity.
(I cannot resist both loving the techno dawn over the Pacific Ocean, and laughing that the East Coast gets ocean dawns and moonrises, and the West Coast gets sundowns and moondawns. See Robert Frost’s poem “A Peck of Gold”.)
Future genetics in Gattaca does not provide choices of what is good, only choices to eliminate what is “bad”. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out that there is an adaptive advantage to needing glasses? It is always dangerous to label as “bad” that which has survived millions of years of evolution.
In case anyone missed it, our hero ( who like Richard Gere does his sit-ups upside down in a door frame- see American Gigolo) is able to find his way back to shore, towing his brother, on a foggy night with a brief glance at a patch of stars to tell him the direction. He is, after all, a celestial navigator.
These are not easy characters to warm up to. They are kept out of our reach in time and culture. When I was in 4th grade, I read about a famous runner from Kansas named Glen Cunningham. His legs were burned almost to the point of amputation when he was eight years old. It hurt less to run than to walk, so he ran everywhere. He ran to the Olympics and set World Records. He startled his opponents because he never paced himself for the mile. At the start of the race he began sprinting to the finish line. He never saved anything for the last lap. He poured on his best the whole way. In retrospect, if he has conformed to modern race strategy, he might have been the first to crack the four minute mile. But as Gattaca teaches us, if his whole heart was not in it, he might not have been at the Starting line.
2016 UPDATE Here is a 2016 interview transcript with Paul Durham discussing how fast biotechnology and genetic testing and m0dification have come since Gattaca was made in 1997.