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Film / Gattaca

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"Consider God's handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?"

"I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to."
Willard Gaylin

Gattaca is a 1997 Science Fiction film written and directed by Andrew Niccol, in his filmmaking debut, which presents a biopunk vision of a futuristic society driven by genetic engineering. The film stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, with Jude Law, Loren Dean, Ernest Borgnine, Gore Vidal, and Alan Arkin in supporting roles.

The story centers on Vincent Freeman (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 (Law), who has perfect genes but was crippled after being struck by 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 (Thurman), while discovering who the real killer is.

Compare and contrast Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

This movie contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The beginning of the movie actually notes it being "The Not-Too-Distant Future". The year can be narrowed down by the dates listed on the urine specimens. Vincent mentions that he is using Wednesday's sample, marked as 4/21. The close years in which this date falls on a Wednesday are 1999, 2004, 2010, 2021, and 2027.
  • The Alcoholic: Jerome. He is drowning his sorrows after his accident and dealing with all the other problems his failing to live up to his "perfection" brought.
  • Alleged Lookalikes: The fact that DNA samples are more noticed than faces is mentioned. Vincent is initially skeptical, as he and Jerome look almost nothing alike, but is convinced that nobody looks at ID photos anymore. The photo on Jerome that comes up on the ID is actually a blend of Ethan Hawke and Jude Law's faces, making both of them using it at one point slightly more believable. The only person who notices that Ethan Hawke and Jude Law look nothing alike is the Love Interest.
  • Almost Kiss: During Vincent and Irene's dance at the club, they begin to inch closer for a kiss only to be interrupted by the entrance of Detective Hugo.
  • Always Someone Better: The reason Jerome is so disillusioned with himself.
  • 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.
  • Anti-Villain: The actual killer. While Director Josef is a believer in the Genetic caste system, he's a Benevolent Boss towards Vincent, has a sympathetic motive -the Mission Director was looking to kill a project he'd been waiting most of his life for and was too old to have another chance at- and he's willing to confess once the success of the mission has been assured.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • Unless there's blood or other stuff that's not supposed to be in there in it, Urine doesn't contain genetic material. There will almost certainly be shed epithelial cells from the urethra in there though.
    • There' also considerable debate about how much DNA is in hair. Most sources say it's just in the root, but others say that fragmentary DNA can still be found in the strand.
    • The title is made from the four nitrogen bases "letters" (GCAT). The complementary strand would be CTAATGT. The mRNA strand would be CUAAUGU.
  • Artistic License – Space:
    • Barring some amazing propulsion system they didn't mention it would take far longer than a year to get to Titan.
    • Titan is not transparent by a long shot, but it's not completely opaque, as Vincent tells Jerome. However this was the common perception back in the 1990s when this was filmed and before the Cassini-Huygens probe got to Titan in 2004. Also given near-future engines, it would be possible as well. In real life, they're still in the research phase...
  • Asshole Victim: The Mission Director. No one mourns him, at least not at work, and the only concern is how this will affect the upcoming missions.
  • Auto Erotica: Vincent was (accidentally) conceived this way. Deconstructed, because this prevents him from being born as a designer baby and essentially renders him an outcast to society, consequently driving much of the film's plot.
  • Back-Alley Doctor. Tony Shalhoub's character in addition to dealing in genetic profiles, also seems a skilled surgeon, dentist and optician to make the identity swaps to work. Justified due to likely being one of the genetically perfect elite himself.
  • Badass Boast: "If the glass is clean it'll be easier for you to see me on the other side of it".
  • Badass Normal: Through sheer training and determination, Vincent becomes almost equal to any of the Designer Babies he works with.
  • Becoming the Mask: Vincent is terrified his past will catch up with him but Eugene points out that society is so wrapped up in thinking about people on a genetic level that they've started to ignore their faces and that Jerome has already become the mask.
    Eugene: You still don't understand. When people look at you, they don't see you any more. They only see me.
  • 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.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The public address announcements are given in both English and Esperanto. The Esperanto League of North America is credited for its translation assistance.
  • 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.
  • Book Ends: There's quite a few mostly-inconsequential moments early in the film that are paralleled during and around the climax in ways more meaningful to the plot. Vincent and Anton's swimming races, the urine test, "Oops, the wind caught it"...
  • Born Winner: Played straight and subverted throughout the movie.
  • Borrowed Biometric Bypass: In this setting, a person's ID is their DNA, so someone with inferior genes can potentially trick the system by carefully using samples of a Born Winner's DNA while concealing their own. Vincent borrows Eugene Morrow's DNA with his consent so he can follow his dreams, which would be inaccessible to him otherwise.
  • Broken Aesop: Despite the movies message against discrimination, Vincent's poor eyesight and heart defect are both legitimate reasons to disqualify him from serving as an astronaut.
  • Burning the Ships: Invoked: When they were kids, Vincent and Anton would play a game of "chicken" where they would swim out to sea as far as possible with the loser being the one who turns back first. Anton would always win until Vincent beat him by deliberately not saving energy for the swim back, mirroring how Vincent 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 Gun: The incinerator.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Vincent's brother the cop, and Director Josef, who killed the Mission Director.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: The Back-Alley Doctor in charge of helping Vincent impersonate Jerome vanishes from the plot entirely after his first few scenes, with little mention of him thereafter.
  • 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.
  • Cure Your Gays: In a deleted scene, when the geneticist asks Antonio and Marie if he had forgotten anything, they mention that they want Anton to marry and give them some grandchildren. As he has already taken care of any genetic diseases that would inhibit reproduction, it seems clear that they don't want Anton to be gay. We are then told that the doctors had done this before they had even asked.
  • Dark Horse Sibling: Vincent was always shunned compared to his brother Anton, but in the end, Vincent's the one who's an astronaut while compared to that, Anton is just a detective.
  • 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.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Eugene, from the first words we hear him speak.
    Vincent: Who lives up there?
    Eugene: Well I certainly don't.
    Vincent: How tall are you?
    Eugene: Four foot six.
    Vincent: How tall were you before the accident?
  • 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.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: After finding another sample from Vincent at Gattaca, Hugo correctly deduces that he's using someone else's genetic profile to secretly work as an astronaut and surmises that he murdered the mission director because he found out about it. A logical, but incorrect, conclusion.
  • Everybody Smokes: Which seems strange given the vision of the future presented.
  • Extra Digits: Vincent and Irene attend a concert by a twelve-fingered pianist during one of their dates. Said pianist was genetically designed to have those extra digits because he plays pieces that nobody with only ten fingers would be capable of; his parents decided he would be a pianist before he was even born. (Interesting fact: the pianist in this scene is played by the creator of Ratboy Genius).
  • 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 Noir: Once the murder subplot is introduced. Long coats, hats, and retro cars for everyone!
  • 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.
  • Fantastic Slurs: Derisive terms for non-engineered people abound like "Utero", "Faithbirth", "Godchild", "In-Valid", etc. In contrast, engineered folk are 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".
  • Fantastic Underclass: Naturally-born individuals are barely trusted with janitorial duties, segregated to poor neighborhoods, and easily picked on by the police. Plus, with DNA scanners everywhere in this society, certain doors will always remain closed to the new underclass.
  • Feigning Healthiness: Vincent takes on Eugene's identity because his own heart condition precludes him from being an astronaut.
  • Genius Cripple: Mostly subverted with Eugene.
  • Genre Throwback: The plot and aesthetics invoke 40s and 50s noir movies.
  • Gilligan Cut: When it becomes clear that Vincent will need surgery to match Jerome's height. "I'm not doing it!"
  • Guilty Until Someone Else Is Guilty: Vincent is suspected of murdering his mission director until another party is found to be the culprit.
  • Handshake of Doom: Most employers will only hire "Valid" individuals for the truly desirable jobs, with any "In-valids" applying for the positions being weeded out in advance through DNA tests. As Vincent notes, even if you don't disclose your status in the interview, it's possible for the prospective boss to get a DNA sample from something as innocuous as a handshake.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Averted, which is probably the point. Despite being genetically "inferior", Vincent is able to prove himself and achieve his goals despite his disadvantages.
  • Hated by All: Absolutely no one seems to have liked or respected The Mission Director; when he's murdered, people are generally only concerned with how his death will affect the mission.
  • Heroic Suicide: Eugene kills himself in the end by activating the incinerator while he's inside so that Vincent can continue to live under his name, having gained his utmost respect.
  • Inspector Javert: Averted with the older detective. At first he fixates on the In-Valid angle despite being told by Anton it's likely unrelated to the murder, but it turns out that's only because it was the only viable lead they had. When other leads present themselves much later in the film the detective pursues them just as diligently and ultimately ends up solving the case.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • After Irene mentions her heart condition:
      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, with medical technology having come as far as it has now. 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. Ethics, of course, are heavily involved in all this, which may explain why we don't live in Gattaca yet.
  • 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.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: A lot of the space issues and program in this movie don't make a lot of sense, and understandably so because the movie is about Sci-Fi genetics, not Sci-Fi space.
  • Locard's Theory: The reason the era's investigators are called "Hoovers" - not just for J. Edgar Hoover, but because they spend a lot of time simply vacuuming crime scenes for genetic evidence. They don't even bother with dusting for fingerprint evidence because fake fingertips like Vincent's are so easy to make.
  • Match Cut: Between Jerome flipping the switch of the incinerator and the spaceship engines firing.
  • Meaningful Name: Vincent Freeman and Jerome Eugene Morrow.
    • The title of the movie and eponymous agency is spelled using the initials of the four DNA bases (the parts that define genes).
    • "Vincent" means "winner" in Latin.
    • Jerome may suggest "genome".
    • Eugene means "well-born" and relates to "eugenics" as practiced too.
    • Also, Morrow suggests "tomorrow".
    • Cassini from the Cassini Space Probe (or its namesake Giovanni Cassini, a 17th century Italian astronomer known for his studies of Saturn).
    • In the Greek from which it comes, "eu" means "good" - so it literally means the incredibly blatant Jerome Good-Gene Morrow.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: Played for laughs; at one point an expert on the designer baby tech is asked if it's possible for someone to "exceed their potential". He replies that it isn't, because that's what the word "potential" means; if someone is exceeding what was predicted to be their potential, the prediction was simply wrong.
  • Neat Freak: Vincent has this reputation, as he's constantly cleaning his desk; however, he's actually trying to make sure that none of his genetic material remains, and he systematically plants DNA from Jerome after cleaning his.
  • No Name Given: The Mission Director is just referred to by his title.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: This movie is a Genre Throwback to Film Noir movies of the 1940s/50s, so everyone has old-timey cars and clothes despite being 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • 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.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: The two policemen investigating the murder. Both are fairly tenacious and savvy, but there's at least twenty years between them.
  • Oppose What You Suffered: Vincent allows the wind to carry away a genetic sample given to him by Irene when she is clearly afraid he will reject her because of her imperfect genes. Actually having used bought genetic samples to assume another man's identity after having been discriminated against because of his own imperfect genes all his life, Vincent knows exactly how Irene feels.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: Common cinematic device through the movie. See page image, for example.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Despite having Holographic Terminals and Casual Interplanetary Travel at Gattaca, their handheld testers are fairly simplistic. See Zeerust.
  • Pass Fail: Vincent is an In-Valid passing himself as a Valid with the help of Jerome. There is in fact an entire black market in "borrowed ladders" such as Vincent.
  • Perma-Shave: Justified; Vincent meticulously removes all of his body hair to ensure that none of it can shed and reveal his true identity.
  • Pet the Dog: The first thing Vincent’s brother Anton does when they meet up again is hug him. He is clearly uneasy with the idea that Vincent could be a murderer and is visibly relieved when this is proven false. And even though he warns Vincent that what he is doing is legally fraud, he does not expose his brother in the end.
  • 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.
  • Precision F-Strike: Jerome does this at least twice.
  • Prim and Proper Bun: Irene's default hairstyle.
  • Properly Paranoid: Vincent has to gather up any hair and skin particles. Fortunately there's a whole industry in maintaining your privacy, so this doesn't stand out.
  • Rapid DNA Test: The key technology of the whole premise, instant and ubiquitous DNA readers make the laws against genetic discrimination impossible to enforce.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: Jerome's superior genetics are described this way.
  • Retro Universe: Possibly the Trope Codifier (well, along with its 1990s contemporary Batman: The Animated Series). The production design blends early 1960s fashions and "futuristic" vehicles from the period with 1930s noir and the setting, plot and theme has a very 1950s Science Fiction feel. Everyone drives retro or period cars, but with nifty glowing green headlights. There are a lot of notable similarities and parallels in both atmosphere, setting, and characterization to works by Philip K. Dick (his 1960's work in particular. Contemporary (1990s movies) by the Wachowskis and Darren Aronofsky, also reflected a similar stylised dystopian bent in works set 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • The Reveal:
    • The young detective is really Vincent's brother, Anton.
    • The killer of the Mission Director is Director Josef, head of the space program that Vincent infiltrated, who killed the Mission Director for holding the mission back with constant cutbacks.
    • Lamar, the person that runs background checks, actually knew Vincent was an In-Valid the whole time and didn't rat him out because he gives him hope that his son—who was genetically selected but "not all that they promised"—might also become something more.
  • Scenery Censor: Every time Vincent strips nude to shave all of the stray hairs off his body, he's always contorted in such a way that the camera doesn't show any of his intimate bits. The most blatant moment of this is when he cleans himself at the beach after sleeping with Irene.
  • Screw Destiny: A biological take on this.
  • Second-Act Breakup: Downplayed, both in terms of breakup and reconciliation. Vincent's romantic relationship with Irene falls through when she visits his home and pieces together his identity scheme with Jerome. She forgives him before the end, but he leaves for outer space and it's unlikely they'll be able to see each other again.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: Played with. The reason for Jerome's attempted suicide and paralysis is that when he placed second in a swim meet, he jumped in front of a car. However, by the end of the movie, Jerome finally "accepts" second place, so to speak, by committing suicide and allowing Vincent to live on under his name. This is symbolically represented by Jerome's silver swimming medal appearing to turn gold as he burns in the incinerator.
  • Secret-Keeper: Lamar, Irene and Anton at the end of the movie. Deleted scenes show that both The head janitor and Anton's partner are also aware of Vincent's identity but chose not to reveal it.
  • Shown Their Work: The device used to lengthen Vincent's legs is pretty much completely accurate.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Vincent is shown to have been jealous of his brother since childhood, which is then played with as his brother turns out to be just as insecure as he is in adulthood.
  • Spot the Imposter: Vincent spends the entire film trying to avoid being outed as an In-Valid.
  • Suicide By Cremation: This is how Jerome dies in the end.
  • Super Doc: German who besides finding and selling genetic profiles also dabbles as an optometrist and a surgeon to help Vincent look more like Eugene; somewhat justified by him likely being a Valid.
  • Symbolic Baptism: The protagonist competes routinely with his genetically superior younger brother in swimming races out to the furthest possible point. A pivotal moment in his childhood and resolving to lie about his genetic status comes when he finally wins a race against his brother, proving that he could do anything he set his mind to, genetics be damned. When the stunt is repeated late in life and he once again triumphs, he reveals his secret to success with his brother he never planned to make the return trip and was determined to swim out as far as he could, return trip be damned. He was counting on his brother calculating for the return trip.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Anton experiences this when Vincent tells him that his real motivation is to deal with his own jealousy and insecurity.
  • Villainous Lineage: The true murderer isn't even considered a possible suspect for most of the investigation, on the dubious grounds that his genotype contains no markers for violent behavior.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Though the police are inclined to focus on Vincent as the primary suspect in the murder case at Gattaca, Anton points out that a random invalid has no motive to kill the Director (who was trying to kill a project everyone was deeply invested in and apparently acted as if the universe revolved around him), whereas just about everyone at Gattaca did. As it turns out, he was right.
  • 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.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Irene takes the hair she thinks is from Vincent to a DNA testing clinic used for checking potential suitors. The person doing the testing congratulates her on having picked up someone with such a high score; Irene however is devastated as she now thinks Vincent won't be interested in her.
  • 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 '90s, why Pluto is still a planet, and why nobody knows what Titan's surface looks like. The aesthetics of the film also deliberately invoke this. The fashion and cars look like they're out of the 50s.