"Like many others in my situation, I moved around a lot in the next few years getting work where I could. I must've cleaned half the toilets in the state. I belonged to a new underclass no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No...we now have discrimination down to a science."
— Vincent Anton Freeman
Gattaca is a 1997 science fiction film which presents a society driven by genetic engineering.The story centers on Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), who was born naturally but has a younger brother who was optimized. Vincent has poor eyesight and a heart defect, but wants to work on the space program at the eponymous agency. He joins forces with Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), who has perfect genes but was crippled when he attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a car. Using contact lenses and copious amounts of Eugene's hair and blood while being careful not to lose a trace of his own genetic material, Vincent manages to pass himself off as a Valid and get a job at Gattaca, where he succeeds by hard work and determination despite his inferior genes.However, a week before Vincent is scheduled to leave Earth on a mission to Saturn's moon Titan, the Mission Director is murdered in his office and one of Vincent's In-Valid eyelashes is found on the scene. He must now avoid being discovered despite intense police scrutiny and his progressing relationship with his Love Interest Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman).Compare and contrast Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
Ambition Is Evil: Averted. Vincent's desire to succeed is what separates him from the other designer babies that exist in the new society, and allows him to go farther than most would have expected him to through hard work and diligence.
Badass Boast: "If the glass is clean it'll be easier for you to see me on the other side of it."
Bigger Is Better in Bed: Despite his overall genetic inferiority, Vincent is mentioned to be superior in one notable area. The doctor reveals at the end that he knew it was fake all along, and is literally complimenting Vincent on the equipment he used to pull off the scam, which would by necessity require a fake phallus to cover the delivery system from the urine pouch.
Blind Without 'Em: Vincent is myopic, and wears contact lenses to fake perfect eyesight. In one scene he has to ditch the lenses to duck a police inspection. Then he has to cross a busy highway. Yikes.
Born Winner: Played straight and subverted throughout the movie.
Broken Aesop: The movie is clearly very against disability discrimination... focused on a main character who's able-bodied by our standards, while the one character who isn't is subject to Bury Your Disabled.
Jerome became disabled because he attempted suicide after failing to meet the high standards expected from his genes, so it seems like at least a Zig-Zagging Trope. It's arguably a subversion of Bury Your Disabled, in fact, because Jerome's problems are really psychological, and not to do with the fact that he's physically disabled at all.
Even without designer babies it's an incredibly bad idea to make someone with a potentially fatal heart defect a pilot.
It's not entirely clear if Vincent actually does have a heart defect, but only the genetic predisposition for one, which means in their view he's no good-the point of the film being made here (the myopia, however, is confirmed and legitimate reason for him to be disqualified, even now-pilots need good eyesight).
There is also the case of the unbroken aesop in the work: Nothing ever replaces hard work. Admittedly the rest of the message is up in the air, but they show clearly that "Hard work will beat out untrained natural talent".
Burning the Ships: Invoked: Vincent, training to become an astronaut, swims across a channel with no visibility. When Anton does so with him, he panics in the middle as he sees no way back. Vincent tells him that's how he got to where he is in life: by never considering a way back.
Bury Your Disabled: At the very end, although Jerome's suicide is presented as strong and noble, rather than pathetic or induced by Wangst.
Casual Interplanetary Travel: Gattaca is a space agency that performs several launches a day, and space travel has become so common that Vincent is thought to be unusual for wanting to watch the takeoff every time (since his dearest dream is to travel in space himself). When he finally gets to go on the mission to Titan, he and his fellow astronauts don't even wear space suits.
Chekhov's Gunman: Vincent's brother the cop and Director Josef Who killed the Mission Director.
Crapsaccharine World: Despite looking pristine and well-organized, the world of Gattaca is not a nice place to live for anyone with less than perfect genetics.
Darwinist Desire: On the one hand, parents wanting their children to be better led to a generation of Designer Babies. On the other, once they became adults these people still view genetic fitness as the prime reason to enter into a relationship, despite it being pretty much irrelevant to having perfect children and has marriage be based only on the perceived genetic fitness of a potential mate.
Particularly, there are a lot of notable similarities and parallels in both atmosphere, setting, and characterization to indie and/or sci-fi works by Philip K. Dick (very much so, especially those written in the 60s), and 90s movies by the Wachowski brothers and Darren Aronofsky, all of which reflected a similar stylised dystopian bent with works set Twenty Minutes into the Future.
Designer Babies: This film is the former Trope Namer. The embryo products of in-vitro fertilization are screened for genetic predispositions to unwanted traits. Embryos without genetic defects are brought to term and these children are considered superior to children born by random chance. Whether they actually are or not is played with:
Vincent has a high probability for developing a heart condition, but his heart is fine. Despite this, he can't match Jerome even with his training.
It's implied that Irene's heart condition is largely, if not entirely, psychosomatic— she was told she was defective, and so she is... or at least experiences enough symptoms to believe she is.
The doctor who tests Vincent for his genes has a son who "Wasn't everything they promised."
Determinator: Vincent. Everything he accomplishes is through hard work, unlike everyone else who gets ahead by superior genetics and discrimination.
Driven to Suicide: Jerome's backstory; he attempted to kill himself because of the intense pressure upon him to succeed (thanks to his supposedly perfect genes) and was left disabled.
Easily Forgiven: Despite lying to Irene about his identity and status as an In-Valid, she forgives Vincent the next time she sees him after finding out, possibly because her genes aren't perfect either.
Everybody Smokes: Which seems strange given the vision of the future presented. Perhaps justified in that in a world where you are (or believe you are) always and forever in perfect health, you could indulge in unhealthy habits without consequence.
Or, in some cases, a subtle hint to us that they've let themselves go to seed. Jerome is depressed that all his perfect genes still don't make him the best of the best, Vincent is not too worried about his health (and has already beaten the odds in more ways than one, so why not one more?), and Irene's own genetic situation and alleged heart condition mean she's not going to space so she's rather apathetic about taking care of herself too.
Failed a Spot Check: Whenever they check Jerome's blood, his name and photo show up on a computer screen with the word "VALID". That said, the guy giving the sample is Vincent, who looks nothing like Jerome. Vincent himself brings this up the moment he meets Jerome; the forger explains that photo ID is so outdated Vincent could use the forger's photo (played by Tony Shalhoub) and people wouldn't notice. People have grown so complacent in depending on the DNA checks that they commit the first-week-of-basic-training mistake of not comparing the ID to the ID holder.
They do make something of an effort, though. Vincent dyes his hair and matches his hairstyle to that of the photo. He also has to undergo surgery to "stretch" both pairs of his tibia/fibula in order to be the same height as Jerome.
Additionally, the photo itself is actually a blend of Vincent's and Jerome's faces which is close enough that both of them could use it if necessary. (This is confirmed in the screenplay.)
Also subverted by the doctor. He knew full well that Vincent wasn't Jerome, he just didn't care. His own son wasn't everything the clinic promised.
Fantastic Racism: The entire point of the film. Although discrimination based on genetics is supposed to be illegal, Vincent says "no one takes the law seriously," because they can easily check your DNA to find out, thus it's nevertheless present from birth, preventing him from getting into a good school and finding a good job despite his hard work and intelligence. Which is why he decides to impersonate someone else to work at Gattaca.
Vincent: I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.
Future Slang: Derisive terms for non-engineered people abound were "Utero", "Faithbirth", "Godchild", "In-Valid", etc, while engineered folk were given complimentary nicknames such as "Vitro", "Valid" or "Made-Man".
A natural-born individual who assumes the identity of an engineered person was often referred to as a "borrowed ladder" or, less flatteringly, a "de-gene-erate".
Irene: (handing Vincent a piece of her hair for a DNA test) Here. If you're still interested [after finding out the truth], let me know.
Vincent: (drops hair) Oops. The wind caught it.
Later, after Irene discovers Vincent isn't actually Jerome:
Vincent: (hands Irene a strand of hair) Here. If you're still interested, let me know.
Irene: (drops hair) Oops. The wind caught it.
I Want My Jet Pack: Now that the scientists have finished the Human Genome Project, no one knows what exactly to do with it. We still don't have Designer Babies yet, though we're a lot closer to being able to do a lot of what was done in the movie, what, with medical technology having come as far as it has now. We can screen for all sorts of things with prenatal testing and it is possible to create "designer babies". Ethics, of course, are heavily involved in all this, which may explain why we don't live in Gattaca yet.
In-vitro fertilization already uses the technique of identifying the most optimal embryos as candidates for uterine implantation and it is already possible (for an exorbitant sum of money) to clone your favorite cat for the next generation.
That said, as real life and the movie note, a lot of the matter is mostly social and cultural. Jerome could have succeeded if he were allowed to do without the unrealistic expectations and pressure. And there are elements such as environmental and upbringing that aren't mentioned in the film that factor in real life though that may also be something the film attempts to note, in a round about way.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jerome. Even though he's a jerk to Vincent at times, he still comes through for him when needed and leaves enough genetic samples to last Vincent a lifetime before committing suicide.
Lampshaded Double Entendre: Vincent's excuse to weasel out of getting his mouth swabbed at a checkpoint. He nods in Irene's direction and says they'd just get a contaminated sample.
Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Nobody ever figures out that Vincent is not Jerome despite the real Jerome having a British accent which Vincent never even tries to fake.
Oblivious Mockery: There's a while-you-wait DNA testing lab used by women to test their dates. When Irene drops off Vincent's sample (unaware it's a hair from Jerome) she's told, "Congratulations" on being handed the result. Irene however is upset because she assumes Vincent is too perfect to want her.
Planet of Hats: With the planet in question being the future Earth, of course.
Police Are Useless: The police constantly focus on Vincent, assuming that the In-Valid must be responsible for the murder at Gattaca. If not for the one rational cop on the investigation (old cop, who is clearly In-Valid and yet superior thanks to years of experience), not only would they have failed to find the murderer, they wouldn't even have come close to finding Vincent.
Villainous Breakdown: Anton experiences this when Vincent tells him that his real motivation is to deal with his own jealousy and insecurity.
Writers Cannot Do Math: At one point Vincent says that his heart is "already 10,000 beats overdue". So assuming that the average human heart beats around 80 times a minute, that's just over 2 hours. Still, it is possible that Vincent was just pulling a number out of the air to be dramatic.
You Keep Using That Word: A genetics expert complains about this when a reporter asks about whether people can "exceed their potential". Of course not, that's what "potential" means. What they can do is exceed the estimates of their potential and show they had been misjudged.
Zeerust: The movie focuses its future speculation on genetic engineering, so it's natural that other aspects of the film's future would be less well thought out. Still, it can be a bit odd watching the movie and wondering why the televisions and computer monitors look like they're stuck in The Nineties, why Pluto is still a planet, and why nobody knows what Titan's surface looks like.