No, the year is not 1997 right now. That is when Gattaca was released. For some reason, I never considered watching Gattaca at the time it was released in theaters, and apparently I wasn’t alone. The movie bombed at the box office, making only $4.3 million in its opening weekend and $12.5 million total (the movie’s budget was $36 million).
But I discovered the premise of this sci-fi film recently and thought it would be interesting to watch, so I picked up the DVD. It’s unique among sci-fi flicks in that it does not involve aliens, floating spaceships or explosions. It’s more like Minority Report than Star Wars.
In Gattaca, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) lives in a world where scientists are able to genetically engineer babies with the parents’ most ideal genes. Such babies grow up in a privileged society and are labeled “valid”. Couples can make babies the “old-fashioned” way, by making love. The resulting children are called “faith babies”, or more derogatorily as “in-valids”, and are oppressively relegated to insignificant roles like janitors. Vincent is an “in-valid”, born with a heart problem that makes him due to die around 30 years old. His brother Anton is a “valid”, superior to Vincent in every way as the two boys grow up. But Vincent has big dreams. He wants to be an astronaut someday. Unfortunately because of his genetic makeup, Vincent’s father tells him that the only way Vincent will be in a spaceship is if he’s cleaning it.
Vincent doesn’t accept his fate. He agrees to illegally switch identities with a highly superior valid named Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) who was paralyzed in his legs from an car accident. The very complicated scheme works. Soon, Vincent is training to go on a mission to one of Saturn’s moons under the identity of Jerome. But the space center facility has many checks to make sure its trainees are valids, and Vincent must be extremely careful at all times. For example, he rubs his body with a pumice stone to remove any loose skin cells that might implicate him. After all, when the government has everyone’s DNA records, a single eyelash that falls out, saliva on your drinking glass, or even a single shed skin cell could betray him as not being Jerome, but Vincent has been successful so far in escaping unnoticed by doing his daily scrub-downs and by providing Jerome’s genetic samples at every checkpoint.
But with just a week before the mission and with Vincent becoming a finalist for the mission, the mission director is found dead and police are all over the space center trying to find the culprit. Will Vincent’s fake identity be found out?
Gattaca‘s very first frame is a quote from Ecclesiastes about how people should not try to alter what God has made. Clearly, the movie is against genetic engineering (what we now call “GMO”, or genetically modified organism). And what’s scary about this movie is the possibility that such genetic engineering of babies could one day become reality. What if kids could be engineered to be 50 IQ points smarter, or have a natural resistance to cancer? Will people reject it as unethical, or embrace it as useful? It’s a legitimate concern, and Gattaca takes a clear position against it.
For example, Vincent, though labeled an “in-valid”, has dreams bigger than genetically superior Jerome. He also has greater determination than his genetically superior brother Anton, in fact saving his brother’s life during a childhood swimming contest. Neither of these are traits that can be genetically engineered.
Among the genetic choices that parents could make, Gattaca did not list homosexuality as one of them. Certainly, the movie could have subtly implied that homosexuality is genetic, but it didn’t.
Vincent begins a relationship with a valid named Irene (Uma Thurman). She eventually discovers that he is an in-valid but still chooses to love him.
Violence: There are a couple shots of the murdered mission director, one of which shows his head in a pool of blood. We don’t see how he died since it’s irrelevant to the film, and the shots aren’t very graphic, but younger kids probably won’t enjoy seeing that. There is also one scene of someone being punched until unconscious, although none of the punches are shown on-screen.
Sex: There is a scene of Vincent and Irene kissing, as well as a scene of the two in bed together (clothed). We see Irene’s bare back in bed after they have had sex. We see Vincent’s nude body (private parts obscured) in a non-sexual scene where he is scrubbing his body.
Language: I don’t recall exactly, but I think there are two f-words uttered.
Other: There are a couple scenes of smoking and drinking. An attempted suicide is mentioned and an actual suicide is implied. Vincent must lie and cheat about his invalid status repeatedly to become an astronaut finalist. Vincent’s parents must choose one of four fertilized but genetically engineered eggs, thus in effect aborting the three others.
What went well
The suspense surrounding the potential discovery of Vincent’s true identity is well-done throughout the movie, particularly as the detective and police start targeting the real Vincent. This aspect makes Gattaca more like a thriller.
Gattaca is highly thought-provoking. As mentioned, the ethical issues of GMOs are at the forefront. But other questions are raised. Would you cheat and lie to achieve your dreams? What if “the system” would condemn you to a life of worthlessness if you didn’t cheat and lie (in one scene, the area where in-valids hang out looks like a prison)? Do high expectations of a person (in the movie, inherently borne from genetically making something perfect) create unrealistic expectations? And more importantly, do high expectations of a person cause more traumatic disappointments if those expectations are not met? Do we discriminate against supposedly less capable people in our own lives? In addition, how concerned are you about privacy issues when the government has everyone’s DNA and uses that to confirm identities? Is anything sacred?
But some more minor thought-provoking concepts are also raised. Would you blindly cross a furiously fast expressway for your true love? Would you love someone who is not your equal or even inferior to you in some way? Would you as a parent conclude that your child is destined not to amount to much because that’s what people tell you about your child…or even if you believed it yourself?
There are a couple plot twists along the way, which add to the interesting complexity of the movie.
What could have been better
Vincent and Irene are not married but engage in premarital sex. The swearing was also completely unnecessary.
A scene involving a 12-fingered pianist concludes with the line, “That piece could only have been played with 6 fingers (on each hand).” While Vincent thinks 6 fingers isn’t necessary to play well on the piano, that last line seems to imply that perhaps unusual genetic engineering might be acceptable (to some people, at least).
The ending is unsatisfactory (explained in the Conclusion).
Can kids watch it?
While some Christian user reviews think it’s definitely not a movie for kids, I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dry. It may be ok for teens, depending on their age and maturity.
The most obvious factors in whether a movie is appropriate for kids (sex and violence) are muted in Gattaca, as previously discussed. If you discuss the suicide scene and premarital sex with your child(ren), I don’t think those would be issues. But there’s the issue of the f-words that are uttered, as well as the smoking and drinking. And the issues surrounding genetic engineering would be too deep for most kids under 13.
So overall, I’d say ‘definitely not’ for kids under 11, and ‘probably not’ for kids 11 and 12. ‘Maybe’ for kids 13-17.
A smart, thoughtful sci-fi movie, Gattaca is definitely worth watching. The main message is consistent with a Christian worldview: a child knitted together by God is ultimately seen as better than a child knitted together by man. A more subtle message is sent in how sterile the world appears in the halls of Gattaca, which is brimming with valids: sterile environment, and sterile personalities. It takes a “faith-child” in Vincent to draw life and personality out of Irene.
The only reason I didn’t give Gattaca a higher rating is because the ending was not entirely satisfactory. [Spoiler alert: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know some parts of the ending. Final warning…] Irene is no longer relevant to Vincent; I would have liked it better if Vincent decided not to go on the mission and instead stayed on earth to marry Irene. Vincent makes a statement about having “a hard time leaving” the world…not sure what that meant. Why would he have a hard time leaving it when that’s been his dream all along? And the meaning of Jerome’s gift to Vincent is a mystery (to many other viewers apparently…google it).
However, this movie, which flopped at the box office (people expecting aliens and explosions, maybe?), is in my mind a sci-fi classic…in my sci-fi Top 10. And from what I’ve read, it is visually beautiful on Blu-ray.
Have you seen Gattaca? If so, what are your thoughts on the movie?