In 2008 Popular Mechanics analysed the most eerily predictive, prescient films of the future in their list – The 10 most prophetic sci-fi films ever. They are the movies that they feel got the science right, or will sometime soon. Gattaca was number one.
Released: 1997 | Set in the year: Unspecified
The mark of a truly prescient sci-fi film is when, after stumbling over a lengthy description of the complex moral dimensions surrounding a given topic, you realize you’ve been wasting your time. “Oh, right. It’s like Gattaca.” Since this slow-burn cult classic was released, the murky bioethics of genetic profiling have snapped into focus. Relegated to the status of “in-valid” due to a subpar DNA profile, Ethan Hawke’s protagonist sets up a complicated identity-swapping scheme to secure a spot as an astronaut. The technology on display in the movie is still years away, but the central message—that genetic oppression can become institutionalized before anyone notices—is increasingly relevant. I should also point out that the writer and director of Gattaca, Andrew Niccol, wrote the screenplay for one of my other picks, The Truman Show. It’s not that I’m a Niccol groupie, but he seems to have a knack for getting to some of the biggest issues of our time, just barely ahead of schedule.
Genetic profiling: The fear factor has been working the edges for years: Will the babies of tomorrow be selectively bred for certain traits? Is eliminating Down syndrome worth the ethical dilemma of allowing parents to choose their child’s gender? Still, what Gattaca poses is an even more plausible crisis: If we can use genes to find out who’s biologically suited to specific tasks, and to calculate estimated life spans for every newborn, how would that reorganize our society? If, for example, we knew that the odds were against a given presidential candidate to survive a single term in office, would anyone vote for him or her? And, as British authorities have recently proposed, if we can identify the genes associated with criminal behavior, why not test every single child, and create a pre-emptive database of would-be offenders? Genetic profiling can clearly be abused, but it could also save lives. Scientists are currently working to identify which genes indicate an increased chance of weight gain, which could help fend off obesity for future generations. But is it worth the risk of saddling whole segments of the population with the stigma of the dreaded “fat” gene? Genetic engineering is still centuries away, but the opportunity to decimate free will, by way of well-intentioned genetic early warnings, has already arrived.
Manned exploration: Since Gattaca isn’t set in a particular time, there’s no way to gauge the plausibility of the protagonist’s dream, which is to get his genetically inferior, possibly short-lived self into space. His first assignment is to reach Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which would set this movie way into the future. But since there are no pop-culture references, and everything is so perfectly fascist and minimal, Gattaca is adrift in its own timeline. It’s wherever you want it to be, which is one of the reasons it’s so successful in its sci-fi ambitions.