Study Guide for Gattaca

1. Credits for Gattaca (1997)

(Modified from Internet Movie Database)

GATTACA (vt Eighth Day, The: working title). Andrew Niccol, dir., script. USA: Columbia Pictures, Jersey Films (prod.) / Columbia et al. (dist), 1997. Danny DeVito, one of three producers. US running time: 101 (106 in Australia; Ebert: 112 minutes).

A rigorously Modern film that could profit a bit (as Stuart Klawans suggested about the Truman Show) from a bit of vulgarity: esp. a bit of spectacle in the (anti)climactic space shot. Still, an interesting assertion of a Modern look and Modernist fears at a time when other SF (= Science Fiction) films were going "cyberpunk" and "postmodern" in the fashion of Blade Runner. Terminator, Alien, and TV shows like The X-Files and Dark Angel. An entertaining as well as thought-provoking movie.

Genre : Drama / SciFi / Thriller

Tagline : There is no gene for the human spirit.

 Brief Plot Outline: Futuristic story of a genetically imperfect man and his seemingly unobtainable goal to travel in space.

2. Major Cast

Vincent Freeman

Ethan Hawke

Irene Cassini

Uma Thurman

Jerome Eugene Morrow

Jude Law

Director Josef

Gore Vidal

Geneticist

Blair Underwood

Younger Vincent

Mason Gamble

Younger Anton

Vincent Nielson

Young Vincent

Chad Christ

Young Anton

William Lee Scott

Personnel Officer

Clarence Graham

Caesar

Ernest Borgnine

German

Tony Shalhoub

Detective Hugo

Alan Arkin

Cavendish

Cynthia Martells

Anton

Loren Dean

Gattaca Trainer

Gabrielle Reece

Twelve-Fingered Pianist

Ryan Dorin

Gattaca Detective

Russell Milton

Blood Test Detective

Steve Bessen

3. GATTACA Review by Roger Ebert

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Running time: 112 minutes.

What is genetic engineering, after all, but preemptive plastic surgery? Make the child perfect in the test tube, and save money later. Throw in perfect health, a high IQ and a long life-span, and you have the brave new world of "Gattaca," in which the bioformed have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get to be menial laborers.

This is one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas. Its hero is a man who challenges the system. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy of about 30 years. He is an "In-Valid," and works as a cleaner in a space center.

Vincent does not accept his fate. He never has. As a child, he had swimming contests with his brother Anton (Loren Dean), who has all the right scores but needs to be saved from drowning. Now Vincent dreams of becoming a crew member on an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn. Using an illegal DNA broker, he makes a deal with a man named Jerome (Jude Law), who has the right genes but was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome will provide him with blood, urine samples and an identity. In a sense, they'll both go into space. "Gattaca" is the remarkable debut of a writer-director from New Zealand, Andrew Niccol, whose film is intelligent and thrilling--a tricky combination--and also visually exciting. His most important set is a vast office where genetically superior computer programmers come to work every day, filing into their long rows of desks like the office slaves in King Vidor's "The Crowd" and Orson Welles' "The Trial." (Why are "perfect" human societies so often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides in our flaws?) Vincent, as "Jerome," gets a job as a programmer, supplies false genetic samples and becomes a finalist for the space shot.

The tension comes in two ways. First, there's the danger that Vincent will be detected; the area is swept daily, and even an eyelash can betray him. Second, there's a murder; a director of the center, who questions the wisdom of the upcoming shot, is found dead, and a detective (Alan Arkin) starts combing the personnel for suspects. Will a computer search sooner or later put together Vincent, the former janitor, with "Jerome," the new programmer?

Vincent becomes friendly with Irene (Uma Thurman), who works in the center but has been passed over for a space shot because of low scores in some areas. They are attracted to one another, but romance in this world can be dangerous; after kissing a man, a woman is likely to have his saliva swabbed from her mouth so she can test his prospects. Other supporting characters include Gore Vidal, as a mission supervisor, and Tony Shalhoub as the broker ("You could go anywhere with this guy's helix under your arm'').

Hawke is a good choice for the lead, combining the restless dreams of a "Godchild" with the plausible exterior of a lab baby. The best scenes involve his relationship with the real Jerome, played by Law as smart, bitter, and delighted to be sticking it to the system that has grounded him. (He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but after all, as the movie observes, you don't need to walk in space.) His drama parallels Vincent's, because if either one is caught they'll both go down together.

Science fiction in the movies has recently specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish, the science in "Gattaca" is theoretically possible. When parents can order "perfect" babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars? That's how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children.

Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun? Will parents order children who are rebellious, ungainly, eccentric, creative, or a lot smarter than their parents are? There's a concert pianist in "Gattaca" who has 12 fingers. Don't you sometimes have the feeling you were born just in time?

http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1997/10/102403.html

4. GATTACA Review in New York Times

October 24, 1997

'Gattaca': A Fully Imagined Future [Lightly edited by RDE]

[Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Running time: 112 minutes.]

By JANET MASLIN

Imagine an Orwellian story presented with a cool, eerie precision like Peter Greenaway's and you have some sense of "Gattaca," a handsome and fully imagined work of cautionary futuristic fiction. Its subject is bigotry, though the races and sexes appear to enjoy equal freedom, which is to say not much. The film's world revolves around strict conformity at places like the Gattaca Corp., where employees wear somber uniforms and stern, serious expressions -- except for one man with a discreetly worried look: Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), Gattaca's house imposter.

Vincent has already tried conventional means of working his way to the top at Gattaca, but in his case a janitor's job is the limit. That is because Vincent came into the world in what is now the conventional manner but could, in an age of genetic engineering, become obsolete. The film envisions a culture of unapologetic discrimination, with genetically Valid individuals spared defects like baldness, alcoholism and attention-deficit disorder and given great privilege.

The others, called In-Valids, are relegated to menial work. "They don't care where you were born," someone says about this arrangement. "Just how."

"Gattaca," an impressively fine-tuned first feature from Andrew Niccol, has been cleverly marketed for weeks with advertisements offering genetically select babies, slick images that fit all too smoothly into today's culture of perfectionist striving. The film is set in "the not-too-distant future," and indeed it succeeds as a scarily apt extension of present-day attitudes.

But beyond the ingenuity of its premise, "Gattaca" also holds interest with its obsessive attention to detail. The filmmakers gave thought to such matters as whether automobiles of the future would need license plates (no, just microchips) and deftly set Gattaca's headquarters in Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center. The building becomes a perfect reflection of the film's spare, controlled state of mind.

Surreptitiously battling the powers that be is Vincent, who has concocted an elaborate subterfuge. He is in collusion with Eugene, a one-time star swimmer played by Jude Law […], the perfect genetic specimen that Vincent, who has a heart defect, is not. "You could go anywhere," Vincent is told, "with this guy's helix tucked under your arm."

Eugene has been crippled in an accident, which effectively cuts short all opportunity for him in this brave new world. So a gene-broker of sorts (Tony Shalhoub) works out a deal whereby Vincent can use Eugene's genetic samples to get past Gattaca's daily security checks.

The film renders this process with fascinating precision, showing how nail cuttings, fingerprints, blood and urine samples, even hairs and dandruff, can be methodically switched. The film's extremely handsome look offsets the physicality of these details with test tubes and steel surfaces and seductive, otherworldly lighting in shades like radium green.

Vincent is in genetic disguise because he dreams of being one of Gattaca's astronauts, who in a film like this wear dark business suits rather than space gear. He wants to go to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and is only days away from a possible trip there when a crisis intervenes. A Gattaca executive is killed and a stray eyelash is found at the murder scene. This is a film where the wrong eyelash could mean complete disaster.

Uma Thurman […] plays the colleague so suspicious of Vincent that she sends a hair from his comb for an identity check. (He has, of course, left Eugene's hair on his comb. At Gattaca, a man can't be too careful.) The film treats Ms. Thurman as a model of composed, corporate perfection, though it also finds a way for her to run through an alley in a silver lame evening gown.

Meanwhile, the large and well-used cast features Alan Arkin as a detective, Loren Dean as his superior officer, Gore Vidal […] as [a] Gattaca [official, Ernest Borgnine as a janitorial shift-leader,] and Xander Berkeley as the most powerful man in the building. He's the scientist in charge of daily urinalysis when the staff arrives at work.

The film, which seems contrived only when dealing with Vincent's family and which creates its own wrenching sense of brotherhood in the relationship between Vincent and bitter, melancholy Eugene, benefits from extraordinary off-camera talent. Michael Nyman, who composed music for "The Piano" and many Greenaway films, contributes a piercingly lovely score. The production designer Jan Roelfs, also a Greenaway regular, contributes backdrops of strange, unnerving beauty.

Evocatively muted costumes are from Colleen Atwood, […] who gives this film a polished elegance. The cinematography is by Slawomir Idziak […].

http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/102497gattaca-film-review.html

5. Comments and Questions

1. The title of the film as GATTACA gives a sequence of nucleic acids: G-A-T-T-A-C-A:

guanine, adenine, thymine, thymine, adenine, cytosine, adenine.

For chemical structure, see http://ndbserver.rutgers.edu/NDB/archives/NAintro/

The title as Gattaca is similar to "Attica," a name for the collection of Homeric city-states that became the heart of Greece (from an Athenian point of view)—and the name of a prison in upstate New York where there was a riot met with deadly force by forces of the State obeying the orders of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (September 1971). (If you can think of other possibilities, mention them.)

• What, if anything, did you make of the title when you first encountered it? How would one or more of the possible references cue us to themes in the film?

2. Given how "hot" the life sciences have been during the time of the development of both science Fiction and film—and how very hot biology is now—it's surprising that there aren't more SF works on biological topics. Given how out-dated Modernist style has become in our postmodern days, it's surprising that a film set in our near future would be highly Modernist. From such views comes the observation of GATTACA as an intriguing modernist dystopia, based in biology—which makes it different from most recent dystopias but a kissing cousin to Aldous Huxley's classic 20th-c. dystopia, Brave New World.

• If you're "Generation X" or after, you grew up "po-mo" (postmodern); if that's the case, how did you respond to GATTACA's modernist mise-en-scene?

• For me and many people in my generation, Brave New World was something one read, not for school but to talk about with the other kids at school: like SciFi generally, it was a somewhat underground part of popular culture. Were you familiar with Brave New Worldfrom high school (one way or another)? If so, did that prepare you to "read" GATTACA? If not, what expectations, if any, did you bring to GATTACA?

3. Teachers of Brave New World fairly frequently report that their students don't find the Brave New World a bad place at all. If the goal of life is happiness, then the Brave New World fulfills that goal far better than our world and is, therefore, by one standard definition, eutopian. If one objects, "—Then a happy pig is better than an unhappy human!", a logical response would be, "If the crucial goal is happiness, yes." How do you judge the world of Gattaca?

• Do you identify with Vincent and, through him, the other In-Valids, for whom the world of Gattaca is not very good?

• Do you identify with the beautiful and successful Valids and find the world of Gattaca a good place for anyone not a loser like Vincent?

• Do you find anything wrong with the attempt to have perfect children?

• Given the chance to have near-perfect children, would you have the eggs and sperm for your kid modified to achieve such vast improvements?

• Given the chance to have yourself genetically retrofitted, would you do so?

• A question asked in a survey of Olympic-class athletes (approximately; I'm quoting from memory): If you could take a drug that would assure you a gold medal at the next Olympiad, but would probably kill you within ten years, would you take the drug?

4. Gattaca was a relatively low budget movie, but by the 1990s even a low-budget movie could have a wonder-full Science-Fictional rocket launch to climax the film. Gattaca withholds the wonder in a major way, so major I assume it's intentional. What is the thematic effect of having the film to lead up to Vincent's victory getting into space—and then have that victorious moment so anticlimactic?

5. Aristophanes's The Congress Women—an Old Comedy satire—opens with a man defecating on stage, and it was notable (much later) in TV history that the first toilet flush was in the satiric All in the Family, with a subsequent toilet motif in the satiric Married … With Children. RULE: "If you hear someone pissing or smell shit—if people are dealing at all with their less respectable 'precious bodily fluids'—you're probably in a satire." There is a lot of body business in Gattaca: urine, blood, hair … anything that can supply a DNA sample.

• How does the body motif go with the aseptic modernist look of the decor and costuming and body types (Mr. and Ms. Perfect)?

• If we're in a satire in GATTACA, what is being satirized?

6. In its over-arching structure, GATTACA is a murder mystery and a story of brotherly competition.

• Did you care who killed the company big-shot? (Is it significant that the murderer was another big-shot, emphatically a Valid?)

• Which is the more important brotherly relationship: Vincent and Anton, or Vincent and Jerome?

• It's a true cliché of SF criticism that the characters compete with the background for our attention; indeed, as Ursula K. Le Guin notes, when the scenery can eat a character, the character/background distinction can get tricky. If SF is usually part of Romance and Satire, this world/character competition fits into a larger pattern. How interested should we be in the characters in GATTACA?

• Should we be disappointed that Vincent goes off into space, leaving Irene? (A hero in a romantic comedy would not do that!)

• Should we take tragically the death of Jerome?

7. On the end of Gatttaca, from the conclusion of Hannah Kuhlmann's "Escaping Abjection: Gattaca's Narratives of Discrimination," The University of Minnesota / Women's Studies 3190 / June 2000, <http://www.tc.umn.edu/~matri001/wost3190/Kuhlmann3.html>:

Choices of race and skin color could have been discussed in the doctor's office scene when Anton is designed, but instead of engaging in the potential complexities and problematic combinations of genoism and racism, the film shies away from confronting them. Vincent flees the problems of embodiment as much as the film does. His DNA threatens his identity, and his grand destiny as an astronaut. He seeks disembodiment in space. It is not the problems of his eugenic society that bother him, just his own disadvantagement. As he tells Eugene, "I don't want to be in there [Gattaca], I want to be up there [the heavens]." He would rather saw up his own legs than fight the system on Earth, because all that troubles him is his own abject status. He is sure he does not belong in abjection. So, Gattaca is not really concerned with genoism, so much as it is concerned with the liberal humanist subject getting the rewards he deserves. The movie says, "isn't it absurd that this usually privileged guy would be stuck down with women, gays and cripples, in a position reserved for racial "others"? That's nutty! Let's get him back on top where he belongs."

Because he can never honestly occupy an elite position in Gattaca's world, he quests to escape his problematic meat. In space, he tells Eugene "your legs wouldn't matter." He can be free of his body, and actually return to a state of pre-embodiment. "They say when you're weightless, it's the closest thing to being in the womb," Vincent fantasizes. Escape, safety, and ignorance of embodiment's problems are his goals. In his final voice-over speech, our triumphant hero muses:

For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I'm suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving. Maybe I'm going home.

In other words, white, straight males with money don't belong in a world where they can be discriminated against. They are above the problems of the rest of the world. The liberal humanist subject Vincent has achieved his true potential, just as we always knew he would. He has escaped abjection (where he so clearly did not belong), transcended all the problems of embodiment and left behind him all the unworthy, weak others. Underneath its mask of anti-discriminatory language, Gattaca harbors an agenda of judgement. Vincent urges us to remember that he "was as good as any, and better than most," a perfect reflection of the film's muddled messages of natural equality and natural superiority. Perhaps the least progressive anti-discrimination movie ever, Gattaca contains its own system of evolutionary psychology and selection. For all its talk about the evils of genoism and new forms of discrimination, Niccol's film only ends up reinforcing our familiar, time-honored old hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability. If Gattaca [the firm] "has discrimination down to a science," then Gattaca [the film] has discrimination down to anart.

Kuhlman uses here " Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject," quoting Kelly Oliver,

Kristeva develops a notion of abjection that has been very useful in diagnosing the dynamics of oppression. She describes abjection as an operation of the psyche through which subjective and group identity are constituted by excluding anything that threat[en]s [sic] one's own (or one's group's) borders.

We needn't accept this definition, however, to get Kuhlman's point that Gattaca's hero, Vincent, is pitied because he's held down and the kind of person who should not be held down: "white, straight males with money don't belong in a world where they can be discriminated against."

• If you are not among the "white, straight males with money," did you still identify with Vincent? Should you have identified with Vincent?

• Failing to suggest a positive norm and ways out of dystopia, Gattaca fails as a critical dystopia (to use Tom Moylan's phrase) and may fail as a political statement. Does Gattaca succeed as satire? As SF dystopia?

• Is it enough for satire to deal with one set of problems while, necessarily ignoring many other sets of problems? Is it OK if it limits itself to the problems of the rich and privileged?

• The end of Gattaca avoids any effects, special or otherwise, that might suggest the wonder of space, awe, transcendence. Has Vincent made a good deal in leaving Earth?