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No. 39: Gattaca

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 39
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
April, 1998


A film by Andrew Niccol

reviewed by James B. Jordan

If you missed Gattaca at the movie theaters, you can probably check it out from your local video store now. And you should. This is one of those relatively rare thought-provoking movies that can stand being watched with brain in gear more than once. It is also poetic, sensitive, visually rich, musically wondrous, and well directed and acted.

Not everyone has thought so. You have to be willing to think through the implications of the science fiction premise of the film and consider what kind of society would result. It is a world of genetically perfect people, and normal "God-children" or "faith-children," conceived without designer genes, are relegated to an underclass. If you think through what such a world would be like, all the supposed "flaws" in Gattaca are revealed as important elements.

For instance, the people are very cool and reserved. Nobody wants to let anyone else know that he or she might have a defect. So don’t expect great "passionate displays" in this culture. It is also, predictably, a very conservative culture, in the midst of a kind of 1940s revival. It is nice to see a science fiction film in which the implications of the new technological advances have been thought through. But Gattaca is not a science fiction adventure movie. Rather, it is more like a Jane Austin or Charles Dickens story.

Your name is Vincent Freeman, and you are a God-child. The prophets of genetics say that you have a 99% probability of developing a heart condition, and so there is no way you’re ever going to be admitted to the space program. You’ll never go to heaven.

But you find a "borrowed ladder," named Jerome Eugene Morrow. He has perfect genes, but he has a permanent injury and cannot walk. You can adopt his identity by using his body and blood to pass yourself off as him. Morrow’s identity, plus your own hard work of body-building and study, make you eligible to be on the first spaceship to Saturn, the beautiful heavenly planet. But in order to pass as Morrow, you need not only his body and blood, but you also have to scrub yourself clean of all defilements every day. (Does this sound like familiar Christian doctrine?)

Then you meet Irene Cassini. (Oleg Cassini discovered the rings of Saturn.) She’s imperfect too, like you, but unlike you, she has been cowed into thinking she’s not good enough for anything but clerical work. As you fall in love with her, and she with you, perhaps the heaven you wanted in the stars is available here on earth after all.

Now, that’s only the beginning of what is in this film. The movie is not just about love and heaven, but also about brotherhood, as Jerome and Vincent develop a caring relationship that Vincent never had with his own genetically-perfect natural brother Anton. Jerome himself, originally one of the rather hard, superior, perfect people, learns compassion through suffering; and as he gives his body and blood to help Vincent, eventually comes to the point of self-sacrifice, giving his whole life for his friend.

Religiously, the film begins with a quotation from Ecclesiastes, and asks the question whether the human spirit is encoded on genes or comes from something higher. The religious elements are in the background, yet they serve to fix the themes of the film. Vincent’s mother clutches a rosary, cross visibly displayed, as she gives birth to her "faith-child." The symbol on the identity cards of the designer people is an infinity symbol, but on the cards of the normal people is a cross. When Vincent is accepted to go to Saturn, Jerome exclaims pregnantly: "They’re sending you up there, for Christ’s sake! You! Of all people!"

The imagery in the film is consistent: Virtually everything looks like the curved rings of Saturn: the desks of the workers in the Gattaca complex; the ceiling of the Gattaca complex; the field of solar mirrors that Irene and Vincent visit; the designs at the night club they visit; the circular dais of the piano; the circular tunnel leading to the space ship. And then there is the staircase shaped like DNA.

At the end, you enter a tunnel to go into a space ship to go to Saturn, thanks to grace alone as it turns out. But you’ve already been through a tunnel: a traffic tunnel that led to a roadside, where you parked and then made a very dangerous highway crossing to be with your real Saturn, Irene Cassini, in the beautiful field of sunrise mirrors.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this wonderful movie here. It is one to watch and watch again (I saw it four times in the theater), and eventually will be recognized as the best movie of 1997, far better than Titanic.