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As soon as Vincent is born his DNA is analysed and his future capabilities are predicted—including the fact that he has a 99% chance of dying of a heart disorder when he is 30 years old. As a result, he is doomed to a life of menial labour.
However, he is determined to get to Gattaca Space Academy and to join space missions. Through his sheer determination—and the use of someone else’s very superior DNA, which he buys illegally—he manages to achieve his ambition.
The film ends with him taking off in a rocket for Titan: he has overcome his genetic limitations and is free.
Hardly a week passes without claims by scientists that they have isolated the gene for some particular disease or trait. Increasingly we are told that mental and emotional characteristics can be attributed to our DNA. Insurance companies want to increase genetic testing in order to identify high-risk applicants for life insurance. More and more we are being defined by our genetic make-up. Gattaca explores these issues.
The film opens with a text from the Bible – Ecclesiastes 7:13 “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” It continues to tell how our civilisation may, in the not too distant future, attempt to do this.
This is a world in which women take swabs of their lips to catch the saliva from a potential husband’s kiss in order to have the DNA analysed – to assess their positive and negative attributes. It is a world in which pianists are genetically engineered so that they can play pieces “that can only be played with 12 fingers”. It is a world in which police and security checks are carried out by immediate DNA analysis from blood samples.
Vincent, the main character, was conceived by a young couple in love – in the back of a car rather than in a laboratory. Thus he was destined to be a second-class citizen along with others born in the same way – and called “faith births” or “degenerates” or “invalids”. Within seconds of his birth his DNA was analysed and his parents were told that he had a 99% chance of a heart disorder and should die when he was 30.2 years old.
His parents decided to have a second son through “natural birth” as it was called – a process involving careful genetic selection and manipulation. This carefully engineered the child from the best bits of the father and mother, producing a child that (this time) was good enough to take the father’s name – Anton.
The struggle between the two brothers, with their regular swimming competitions, illustrates the struggle between “faith births” and “natural births”.
No matter how hard he works Vincent is rejected by schools and then by employers. He observes, “My real resume is in my cells. They have discrimination down to a science.” In time Vincent becomes a cleaner at Gattaca, a space exploration centre, where he watches the rockets take off and longs to be able to fly one – a dream made impossible by his genes.
But then Vincent decides to make the impossible become possible by “borrowing a ladder”. He teams up with Jerome Morrow, a competition swimmer with excellent genes, who had broken his back when hit by a car, and who now needs money to pay for his excessive drinking. Vincent dyes his hair, has coloured contact lenses fitted, has an operation to lengthen his legs and assumes Jerome’s identity. Each morning Vincent scrubs off all his loose skin and hairs before sticking on his finger tips small patches containing Jerome’s blood and strapping to his legs a bag of Jerome’s urine. Thus, whenever he gives a sample, it is Jerome’s DNA which is identified.
Vincent applies to train at Gattaca and finds that the interview process is nothing but a quick analysis of his urine. With genes like that he is immediately accepted and is soon scheduled for a flight to Titan. During his training he also falls in love with Irene, another trainee, whose DNA is good, but sufficiently flawed that she is told that she will not be allowed to fly any long missions.
The flight is nearly cancelled by the mission director – but someone murders him in Gattaca. The police are called and the building is swept for human hairs, skin and saliva. One of Vincent’s hairs is discovered and the police set out to track down this “invalid” who is their most obvious suspect. They eventually discover the real murderer to be another of Gattaca’s directors (someone who had earlier thrown the investigators off by saying “Look at my DNA profile, I don’t have a violent bone in my body”).
The film ends with Vincent taking off in the rocket on his flight to the stars.
There are at least two scenes of ferociously high tension — one involves a blood test, the other a struggle to the top of a helical staircase.
Children of the middle and upper classes are designer babies, genetically engineered in-vitro to be the optimal recombination of their parents’ genetic material. A genetic registry database uses biometrics to instantly identify and classify those so created as valids while those conceived by traditional means are derisively known as faith births, god children and in-valids. Those in-valids who try to enter the valid world by contracting with valids to purchase their DNA, through collection of blood, urine, hairs, dead skin flakes, etc., are known as borrowed ladders and de-gene-erates. While genetic discrimination is forbidden by law, in practice it is easy to profile one’s genotype resulting in the Valids qualifying for professional employment while the In-Valids who are susceptible to disease are relegated to menial jobs.
The movie draws on concerns over technological developments which facilitate reprogenetics, and the possible consequences of such biotechnology for society. It also explores the theme of destiny and the ways in which it can and does govern lives. Characters in Gattaca continually battle both with society and with themselves to find their place in the world and who they are destined to be according to their genes.
- Tagline: “There is no gene for the human spirit.”
In a “not too distant” future, where genetic engineering of humans is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class, Vincent (Hawke) is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. Suffering from the nearly eradicated physical dysfunctions of nearsightedness and a congenital heart defect, as well as being given a life expectancy of 30.2 years, Vincent faces extreme genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut is to impersonate someone else.
He assumes the identity of swimming star Jerome Eugene Morrow (Law) who becomes paraplegic as a result of a botched suicide attempt when he could not accept winning second place in light of his genetic superiority. Vincent uses “valid” DNA and tissue samples provided by Jerome, and gains admittance as a celestial navigator to the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, the most prestigious space-flight conglomerate of the day. The plan works perfectly until, a week before Vincent is scheduled to leave for Titan, the mission director is murdered and evidence of Vincent’s own DNA is found at the crime scene in the form of an eyelash. Vincent must evade ever-increasing security as his mission launch date approaches and he pursues a relationship with his co-worker Irene Cassini (Thurman).
After numerous close calls, the investigation eventually comes to a close as Director Josef (Gore Vidal) is arrested for the murder. Just as Vincent seems to be in the clear, he is confronted by one of the detectives covering the investigation, who is later revealed to be Vincent’s estranged brother, Anton (Loren Dean). Anton criticizes Vincent for putting his family under undue stress due to his disappearance. However, it soon becomes apparent that Anton is acting more out of insecurity and is more concerned with how Vincent had managed to get the better of him, despite his supposed genetic superiority. Vincent and Anton settle their competition as they did when they were children, by seeing who could swim out into the ocean farthest. Once again, Vincent manages to beat his brother, and saves him from drowning.
As the day of the launch finally arrives, Jerome says that he intends to travel the world, and reveals to Vincent that he has stored enough genetic material to last him two lifetimes. As Vincent moves through the Gattaca complex to the launch site, he is stopped for an unexpected DNA test. Vincent reluctantly agrees to take the test, even though he has none of Jerome’s genetic material to hide his identity. As Vincent takes the test, the doctor confesses to Vincent that his son admires him, and wants to be an astronaut just like him, despite a genetic defect that would already rule him out. The test result reveals Vincent’s true identity, but the doctor alters the results and allows him to proceed regardless. The doctor then reveals that he has known Vincent’s identity all along, saying: “For future reference, when urinating, right-handers don’t hold it with the left hand. Just one of those things.” As the shuttle lifts off, Jerome is shown committing suicide inside his home incinerator, wearing his last medal.
The story centres on the irony of the perfect Jerome failing to succeed despite being given every advantage while the imperfect Vincent transcends his deficiencies through force of will and spirit. A milder version of the disorder that afflicts Vincent prevents Irene from taking part in space flight. This dichotomy shows how the eugenic policy in Gattaca and the world in which it is set adversely affect the humanity of both Vincent and Jerome, as well as the “invalid” and “valid” humans they represent.
The film’s themes include personal identity, courage, friendship, love, hope, the burden of perfection, sacrifice, sibling rivalry, society and control, fate, genetic determinism, and whether human nature and the human spirit can be defined or limited by DNA.
“The most unremarkable of events: Jerome Morrow, navigator first class, is about to embark on a one-year manned-mission to Titan, the fourteenth moon of Saturn: a highly prestigious assignment. Although for Jerome, selection was virtually guaranteed at birth. He’s blessed with all the gifts required for such an undertaking: a genetic quotient second to none. No, there is truly nothing remarkable about the progress of Jerome Morrow – except that I am not Jerome Morrow.”
The name “Gattaca” is composed entirely of the letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA. The four nucleotide bases of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) are adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.
- The winding stairs in Jerome’s apartment have the structure of a double helix, like DNA.
- Uma Thurman’s character is named Irene Cassini. Cassini is the surname of the 17th century French-Italian astronomer, Jean Dominique Cassini, who discovered the prominent gap in Saturn’s main rings, as well as the icy moons, Iapetus, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys. The space mission in Gattaca is destined for Saturn. A space probe is currently travelling towards Saturn’s moon Titan. The probe is called Cassini.
- Jude Law’s character asks to be called by his middle name,Eugene. “Eugene” comes from the Greek for “well born,” which Jerome is. “Eugenics” (the science of improving the hereditary qualities of a race or breed) is the central theme of the film.
- The FBI agents are called “Hoovers,” a reference to legendary top-G-man J. Edgar Hoover, but also a clever reference to a vacuum cleaner brand. There are numerous shots of vacuums being used to gather DNA evidence.
- The DVD contains deleted footage not included in the theatrical release: A short sequence which shows some famous people who may had not been born if science had decrypted the human DNA sooner: Abraham Lincoln (Marfan Syndrome) Emily Dickinson (Manic Depression) Vincent van Gogh (Epilepsy) Albert Einstein (Dyslexia) John F. Kennedy (Addison’s Disease) Rita Hayworth (Alzheimer’s Disease) Ray Charles (Primary Glaucoma) Stephen Hawking (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Asthma) The last sentence is: “Of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own.”
There are no true jobs of merit or achievement for those who are naturally born and/or are born weak in the future Gattaca society. A job interview is a urine analysis. An individual is only as good as his or her genes.
Vincent is a dreamer. He is an individual stuck in the system dying to be something else. Every day he is reminded of his imperfection by his younger, valid brother. He is stronger, smarter, and better looking than Vincent. Vincent studies hard, and dreams of joining Gattaca and leaving Earth to travel in outer space. Gattaca is, in a way, the equivalent of NASA. The competition to even be hired by such an organization is highly prestigious and impossible for any invalid, unless they are being hired to wash the windows. Vincent knows he has no shot of becoming associated with any type of company on merit alone. He can study all he wishes, but he doesn’t have the genes to back it up. Within Gattaca is a highly sophisticated system of surveillance and control for a modern society. There are frequent urine tests, physical tests and exams, and to enter your work place daily, your identification card is a daily blood sample from the prick of your finger. The system utilises constant observation and is considered impossible to fool.
Vincent’s desire to become a member of the genetically elite, forces him to leave home and his brother’s shadow. He begins his quest to break the system. Vincent begins life on his own. He is hired by Gattaca to clean the centre, which gives him an inside peek at operations and puts him closer to his dream. During his employment, he hears of a man who had successfully helped invalids fool the system. This man, who has found a way of breaking the system, joins invalids with valids who have lived through some terrible accident that has stunted their physical abilities. The invalid borrows the identity of the valid, putting him under the distinction of a degenerate, or a borrowed ladder. The process is quite tough, but possible. Vincent is set to become Jerome Morrow, a genetic masterpiece. In order for Vincent’s plan to work, he has to appear in likeness to Jerome. He cuts his hair like him, wears coloured contact lenses, and even has to break his legs to make himself the same height as Jerome. Vincent must daily scrub any evidence of himself such dead skin, hair, and nails. Back in the apartment, the real Jerome will accumulate blood and urine samples, and collect some other types of physical evidence of himself for Vincent to place at his Gattaca work station. Vincent is now Jerome.
Jerome’s job interview at Gattaca is a urine test, only a urine test. He is immediately hired, and moves quickly up the ranks. He applies a fake fingertip upon his finger every day filled with the real Jerome’s blood. He has everyone believing that his true identity is the amazing Jerome Morrow, and would have done so without a single question or doubt if a murder did not happen on his floor. Investigators found one of Vincent’s real eyelashes near the scene of the crime. He did not commit the murder, but he is suspected because he does not normally belong in Gattaca. Despite an extensive investigation, Jerome continues to be successful at keeping his true identity a secret. He is finally discovered by his younger brother, who, ironically, was in charge of the investigation. His brother does not give him up, and the true identity of the murderer is eventually figured out.
Vincent, as Jerome, becomes a symbol for others to follow their dreams. He is in a sense the embodiment of the American Dream. The dream says that success is possible for all those who work diligently and put their mind into what they do. As long as humans utilise the strength they possess, there will always be people getting ahead and doing what they desire to do. They look out, beyond what holds them back, and fear not the consequences.
The following essay questions have all been taken from official SQA past papers. These were originally at Intermediate 1 level. For National 5 your answers should be more sophisticated and detailed but the structure remains the same. If you are to write a good critical essay you MUST keep to the task set. If you do not answer the question you cannot pass.
Choose a film with an opening sequence which captures your interest.
Say what interests you in the sequence and show how the sequence made a good beginning to the film as a whole.
The opening sequence of ‘Gattaca’ by Andrew Niccol is very interesting. During the opening credits we see what looks like branches of trees falling to the ground and the sound also suggests that whatever is landing is large but they are in fact human hairs greatly magnified and the ‘snow’ is human skin cells. As these are falling the names of the actors are appearing on screen. The letters A, C, G and T are highlighted. These are the bases of human DNA and are also the letters in GATTACA which is the space agency featured in the film.
The camera pans out to allow us to see a man in what we assume to be a shower unit. He is scrubbing his skin and scalp to remove as much of his dead skin and loose hairs as he can. The shower itself has horizontal bars across it. This idea of bars, here suggesting both a ladder and being imprisoned, is repeated throughout the film.
When the man we later know to be Vincent Freeman steps out of the shower, he straps a sachet of urine to his leg then we see him inject blood into a false fingerprint which he then glues to his finger. The room he is in looks like a scientific laboratory with huge freezers and workbenches and the glassware we are used to from science classes.
From the way he does all of these things it is clear that this is his usual morning routine and we are very interested to know why this is so.
Outside we see a wide angle shot of a rather bland apartment complex and the car that moves off makes a strange noise which makes us believe it is probably powered by electricity. The sepia colour of the film adds to the strangeness of the scene.
Next we cut to the interior of ‘Gattaca’. The people in the building are all dressed in dark suits and look very alike. They form orderly lines at what looks like a turnstile. As the camera zooms in we see that each person places their finger on a button which obviously has a sharp point as we focus in on a single drop of blood making its way down a tube. A light then flashes green, and the person is identified as ‘valid’ and allowed forward. If someone like Vincent who was not created through genetic engineering tries to get through, the red light will flash and he will be identified as ‘in-valid’ and inferior. This is why Vincent has to wear false finger prints injected with someone else’s blood.
The building we see has high ceilings and looks modern – even futuristic- but not so much so that we feel that this is a world very different from our own. The caption comes up stating that the film is set ‘in the not-too-distant future’.
In the final part of the opening sequence we see people rushing towards the scene of a crime. One of the directors in Gattaca has been killed. We see the main character rub his eye and leave a single eyelash on a ledge. We also find out from the voice-over that the character we have been following since the film began is not who he seems to be. He is not Jerome Morrow.
The opening sequence effectively sets out the different strands and ideas of the film. The main character has to pretend to be someone else in order to fulfil his dreams. People are judged on their DNA alone. There is also a murder to be solved and it is likely that during the investigation the main character’s secret will be found out.
Choose a film which deals with an important relationship.
Describe the relationship and show how the filmmaker uses the techniques of film to keep you interested in the relationship.
An important relationship in ‘Gattaca’ by Andrew Niccol is that between the hero of the film, Vincent, and his brother Anton.
The film is set in ‘the not-too-distant future’ in a world where children are genetically engineered to be as near to perfect as possible. In this world this is considered to be ‘natural’ and children who are born without genetic engineering are called ‘faith births’ and are considered inferior and ‘in-valid’.
When Vincent is born, his blood test reveals that he has a 99% chance of dying of heart failure at 30. Because he is less than perfect, his father will not let him be called Anton after him. The second son, created through genetic engineering, is, however ‘worthy’ of his name.
This sets up the rivalry between the two boys from the very start. In a series of flashbacks we see Anton being measured and the camera zooms in to show us that he is already so much taller than his older brother, Vincent. Vincent, who is wearing thick glasses (another sign of imperfection), rubs off his own measurements and watches his father and brother from the sidelines.
In a voice-over, Vincent tells us of the many times the two boys played a game of chicken, swimming in the ocean. Each time, Vincent turned back first because he was the weak brother and that was what was expected.
Vincent was determined to make it into ‘Gattaca’, the Space Agency, however, and we see him studying and building up his stamina and fitness levels.
Then the turning point comes: Vincent beats Anton in the race and indeed has to rescue his brother. In the voice-over, Vincent tells us that this was ‘the moment that made everything else possible’.
We then see an extreme close-up of a family photograph and Vincent’s hand tearing his photograph from the group. This is because he has always felt pushed to the side and shows he must take himself out of his family and away from their belief that he can never amount to anything because of his genes.
Vincent does not see his brother again until one of the Directors of ‘Gattaca’ is murdered and Vincent’s ‘in-valid’ DNA is found close to the murder scene. Anton is the detective leading the murder hunt. Before long, he suspects his brother is involved somehow.
Even after the real culprit is caught, Anton is unwilling to accept that Vincent is good enough to be in ‘Gattaca’. Their final swim together is very important. Once again we see Vincent pull ahead. The music mimics the motion of the waves and the strokes as they plough though the water. Anton is drowning and Vincent has to dive under the waves to rescue him. When they break though to the surface the music reaches its loudest point then quietens suddenly until you can barely hear it. We see the sky from Vincent’s point of view as he swims on his back with his brother beside him. The clouds part and we see the stars. This links with the ending when Vincent is in the rocket looking out at the stars which he has dreamed of travelling to since he was a very young boy.
When Anton asks him how this is possible, how any of it is possible, Vincent says simply that he never left anything for the swim back. His determination to succeed has allowed him to defy the odds. Vincent has proved to his brother, once and for all, that a person is not defined by his genes.
This is a perfect example of the message of the film which is: ‘There is no gene for the human spirit’.