Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Andrew Niccol (writer and director), Gattaca (1997)

The science fiction film Gattaca (1997), which was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is a civil libertarian critique of genetic engineering and its potential use in eugenics.  Set in the not-too-distant future, the film warns its audience of the potential perils of pursuing genetic engineering.  The film contends that genetic engineering, and the complementary belief in biological determinism, will manifest themselves as the core ideology of society.  This ideology will, in turn, become the basis for a rigid social stratification between the genetically engineered elites and those created naturally.  This ideology will also provide the basis for prejudice based on genetic traits of perfection or on probabilities derived from biological determinism. 

In the face of genetic engineering and biological determinism, the film argues in favour of the power of will manifested in the drive to succeed against the odds.  The film suggests that predictions about individuals that are based on biological determinism can be broken and are therefore flawed.  It suggests that this will is what is both quintessentially human and ideally human. 

The central character, Vincent, was produced naturally, and is consequently relegated to a lower caste, the ‘invalids’, deemed fit to only work as cleaners. Nevertheless, he dreams of becoming an astronaut and joining the space program run out of Gattaca.  Yet Gattaca only recruits individuals who have been genetically engineered, the ‘valids’, and only selects the best of the valids. Individuals in this society have to submit to frequent ‘substance’ tests, such as by providing urine or blood samples on request, which signify one’s genetic status and determine the jobs one can occupy and the places one can visit.  Those born into the lower caste of invalids can never escape the destiny of their genes, or so it seems.  Vincent goes to the black market to purchase the identity of a genetically-engineered individual he can impersonate, Jerome, so he can pursue his career ambitions.  He trains his body and educates his mind to become accepted into Gattaca, where he excels.  However, he continually risks discovery and losing his opportunity to be sent on a manned space flight to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.  He risks being discovered by his genetically-engineered brother Anton who is, coincidentally, a detective assigned to solve a murder in Gattaca that could inadvertently uncover Vincent’s subterfuge, although he is innocent of the crime.  Despite being humiliated by his brother during their childhood, Vincent ends up outperforming his genetically superior brother by the end of the film.  

The central character, Vincent, is shown to experience a metamorphosis and he literally reaches for the stars and succeeds, although, by doing so, he is surreptitiously making a mockery of the society’s reliance on predictions based on genetic probabilities.  In the case study provided by the comparison between the two brothers, Vincent and Anton, imperfection and will (evident in Vincent) eventually beats perfection and complacency (evident in Anton).  The film posits that there is value in having imperfections and the will to overcome them to succeed against the odds. 

The film suggests that a society that seeks to abolish imperfection will be far from perfect, since it will be less enjoyable and less fulfilling.  It has suppressed the imperfections that add to the diversity that makes the society more interesting and therefore more liveable.  The pursuit of perfection through genetic engineering will compromise the qualities and values that comprise what it means to be human in the positive sense.  Instead, the trend towards genetic engineering will produce regimentation, arrogance, complacency and injustice.  What reigns in this society are the worst expressions of humanity, such as prejudice, arbitrary and oppressive social stratification, and a quasi-totalitarian social order that compromises liberty. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Gattaca meaning, Gattaca themes, Gattaca analysis, Gattaca notes