How much of our destiny is written into our biology at birth? Can humans really become more than simply the sum of their parts? What does perfection mean in the context of designer human beings? These are just a tiny few of the questions raised by Gattaca, a work of science fiction mastery that challenges audiences and doesn’t always offer warm, fuzzy answers.
In the near future, Gattaca employee Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) dreams of travelling to the stars, but his reality is something very different. In this future, all humans are rigorously evaluated by the suitability of their genetic makeup, and genetically engineered designer humans quickly dominate the public sphere. With his inferior genes, Vincent is seemingly destined to live out his life as a second-class citizen, a permanent member of the new underclass. However, things change when he encounters Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a perfect genetic specimen who has lost the use of his legs after a car accident. Vincent is able to live out his dream by assuming Jerome’s genetic identity, but things go awry when his mission director is found murdered only days before his interplanetary flight. With law enforcement close to discovering his secret, Vincent must work quickly to preserve his dream.
Injustice and oppression are familiar themes throughout Hollywood films, but rarely have they been conveyed in this manner. With its nod towards classism, racism, and eugenics, Gattaca plays on themes recognizable to almost any audience. At the same time, it packages those themes in a novel scientific context. It is this combination of relatable human conflict and clever science that makes Gattaca and other excellent sci-fi works tick. Director and writer Andrew Niccol’s vision of a future with a sort of genetic caste system is both innovative and disturbingly plausible. As disturbing as that vision is, the character of Vincent is a hopeful one. Defined his entire life by his weakness, told that he could never hope to achieve what others saw as their birthright, Vincent succeeds where the genetically perfect fail because he is free of their lackadaisical superiority. Made numb to the dangers around him and having reason to risk more, it is ironically his weakness that makes him stronger.