Retro Nostalgia: Gattaca (1997) and Framing the Multivalent Ethical Dilemma

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Before Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997) begins in earnest, we are compelled to think about its underlying ethical dilemma:  is a meritocratic system based on (mostly pre-selected) genetic variables justified, even if that means denying some people equal access simply because their genes say there is something wrong with them?  If you have seen the film, then you know how the story ends — the genetic “weakling” succeeds at doing the impossible, throwing into question the very notion that one’s genetics are an absolute determination of one’s potential.  Thus, one possible side question is:  without the aforementioned meritocratic system, would Vincent/Jerome have fought so hard to succeed?  Questions like this are why films like Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Minority Report and, to a lesser extent, District 9, Logan’s Run, and
Soylent Green (just to name a few) are such profound models of ethical problems put in action.

Gattaca is one of the few films that does so directly, offering the following William Gaylin quote in first the few moments: “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.”  It is difficult to tell whether the film is a direct response to Gaylin’s belief, a partial acceptance of the principle, or a violent refutation.  I am, however, partial to violence.  Gaylin’s quote is put in place without context, almost as if to tell us that this is a future we very well might see — and soon — not because it is “happening now,” but because we will give in to Mother Nature’s demand.  The natural progression for an intelligent, technology-oriented species such as ourselves is to tamper with what makes us “us.”  In one sense, you might think of Gattaca as Andrew Niccol’s answer to that notion:  yes, we might do it, but the ramifications will create an underclass marked (just like with race or gender) by factors beyond their control. The moral quagmire, however, makes race and gender look relatively tame.*

Unlike most (if not all) arguments about race or gender, there is a logic behind Gattaca‘s worldview.  There are no real, scientific differences between Caucasian, African, Asian, and so on — at least, not differences that matter in a meritocratic sense.  But the opposite is true for Vincent/Jerome; he is, in fact, a genetic “weakling,” containing within him flaws that limit his lifespan and his cognitive/physical abilities.  A world where such information is freely available, as it is in Gattaca, has two main options:  it can discard all other subjective factors for selection, or it can shift to the only seemingly objective standard by which to judge people’s capabilities — genetics.  It’s a purely logical system, when you get right down to it, and that, in a sense, is what makes Gattaca a more disturbing dystopia than more violent, direct incarnations.

But underneath this is another important factor:  choice.  William Gaylin’s quote suggests that we’ll tamper because that’s what nature wants, implying that genetic augmentation and genetic meritocracies are natural progressions for human civilization.  Yet doing so will mean punishing people for their parents’ behavior.  Vincent/Jerome, as a “god child” (someone born with natural “chance”), is not a participant in his creation; thus, all the disadvantages his genetics offer are ones he could not change even if he wanted to.  The dilemma, as such, is yet another question:  if ability is mostly determined by one’s genetics, and many jobs require a great deal of natural ability, do we relegate entire segments of the population to menial labor in order to increase “productivity” despite the fact that many of those people had no hand in their own creation?  And is doing so the best course of action for this society?

Yes, it is (says Gattaca in my mind).  And we’re not supposed to feel particularly good about that prospect, in part because most of us recognize the terrifyingly logical discrimination at the heart of the film.  In the end, Gattaca wants us to reject this entire idea, to throw our chips in with Vincent/Jerome — after all, he does exceed his genetically-determined potential.  But Vincent/Jerome is the exception that proves the rule.  There is no way to know if his success will shatter the perceptions of his world, though it is possible to read the various events in the final moments of the film as leading to that conclusion.  However, I tend to see the end as confirmation:  Vincent’s/Jerome’s success isn’t public, and, therefore, whatever change he might represent for this genetic meritocracy can never be fulfilled.  We will tamper with Mother Nature, yes, but we will also have to accept and adapt to its vulgar consequences.

(Can you tell I’m a not terribly optimistic about genetic testing?)


*When I say “tame,” I am referring to the concept’s logic, not to the historical treatment of groups based on race or gender.  From a conceptual point of view, race and gender, for the most part, are illogical.  We know this only because we live in a world where the vast majority of us agree that having different skin or gender does not mean that you are, by default, inferior to another group.  The only way to maintain that belief in any pure sense is to intentionally maintain paradoxes in one’s mind — I think these paradoxes are what compels some to violence, since the psyche cannot keep contradictory ideas afloat if such ideas are connected to identity construction.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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