True grit beats genetics

An interesting article from The Age.

Gattaca examines science, religion, genetic engineering and ethics.

By opening the movie Gattaca with quotations from Willard Gaylin and Ecclesiastes, director Andrew Niccol invites us to ponder the tension between science and religion with regard to the ethics of genetic engineering. This tension is further sustained through the complex relationship of the main protagonists Vincent and Eugene, who must ultimately conquer their own physical limitations in order to find “God”.

As the titles run, fingernails, hair threads and skin particles fall to the ground in slow motion, giving way to an image of a young man vigorously scrubbing himself.

Along with a disturbing score by Michael Nyman, this obsessive-compulsive behaviour contributes to the macabre images of hypodermic needles, catheters and hospital bags of urine and blood. The shower from which Vincent has just stepped quickly converts to a furnace (is this heaven or hell?) while the inter-title “in the not-too-distant future” runs across our screen.

It is the same young man, Vincent, who provides a voice-over and our point of view in Gattaca – the antiseptic setting of a futuristic space program. Here, somnambulistic employees dressed as clones move in and out of a facility designed for cold efficiency. Note the cool blue filters, curved, shining surfaces and, again, a peculiar preoccupation with cleaning.

Loudspeakers welcome visitors to Gattaca in various languages demonstrating that, along with space exploration, genetic screening has diminished both the significance and desire for global boundaries. We are already aware that in this future “blood has no nationality”.

For science now enables discrimination that is far more expedient than simply skin colour. Vincent, a “God” child, is conceived without the help of genetic engineering and is quick to realise that his physical inadequacies, in particular a congenital heart condition, will prevent him from reaching his full potential. It is worth noting that the setting where Vincent’s conception takes place is made “natural” by the inclusion of beaches and palm trees.

As we remain in flashback to where baby Vincent plays with a toy cluster of atoms (similar motifs are repeated throughout the film), we begin to understand the hypocrisy of what this “brave new world” has to offer. “Genoism” – discrimination on the basis of genetics – is illegal, yet it seems that poor genetic outcomes such as Vincent’s prevents insurance cover, which disqualifies him from pre-school – surely an issue that already has some currency in the world we inhabit today.

But although Vincent feels displaced by his genetically superior brother, Anton (note how he walks into the frame just as Vincent tears his own image out of the family snapshot), he is determined to fulfil his dream of space travel.

The initial swimming race where Vincent is beaten by Anton serves as a plot device pre-empting the climax of the film where both brothers, now adults, play “chicken” once again. Aerial shots intensify a terrifying sea and, this time, Vincent’s victory. The irony is stark as Niccol underlines the central theme of the film – what constitutes a “valid” human being? For surely Vincent, an “invalid”, has just proved that genetics has little influence over sheer determination and grit.

Enter Eugene. Genetically flawless but crippled both physically and emotionally from a suicide attempt (he finished second, not first, in a swimming race), he is continually compared with Vincent, whose genetic profile dictates that he will die at the age of 30. Eugene is bitter and twisted while Vincent is single-minded and driven.

Both, however, are essentially blind to what it is that makes them human. Vincent, desperate to conceal his identity from Irene, is nearly run down on a frenetically busy highway, whereas Eugene deliberately steps in front of a car in the hope of bringing about his own death. Both are so preoccupied with their own deficiencies that they almost miss their important “spiritual” journey.

In fact, both these men run perilously close to becoming like Anton – robotic and devoid of emotion. It is Anton who provides the real paradox here by ruthlessly investigating his own brother’s “invalidity” and, in so doing, demonstrates that genetics does not necessarily correlate with one’s humanity.

Indeed, it is Irene who, from the outset, seems to be more in touch with the natural world towards which Vincent is striving to return. Note the setting where she lives; rolling surf, pristine white sand, the warm light within in which she is constantly bathed, her disappointment with Vincent’s supposed “perfection”, her fascination with the sunrise, her ability to notice the change in his eyes after he discards his contact lenses when most people can only recognise human differences by a DNA test. Irene’s costume and hair are much softer, feminine and distinctively individual when she is away from Gattaca.

Read the rest here.


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