Gattaca (1997)


The essence of science fiction is to present a story built on a plausible scientific premise that will make the audience consider the ideas raised by the book or film. Gattaca succeeds at this using a classic formula: set up a dystopian world based on a flawed premise, and have the protagonist successfully challenge that premise.

The world of Gattaca is a dystopia based on absolute genetic determinism. Couples seeking to give their child the best possible chance conceive by in vitro fertilization (IVF). The resulting embryos are then screened for genetically superior offspring. Although there are laws against genetic discrimination, these are casually and openly ignored. Children produced without genetic selection are relegated to menial work, while the carefully-selected genetic elite take places of entitlement in the world.

The film follows Vincent Anton Freeman (Ethan Hawke), conceived naturally, who at birth is given a grim assessment of his potential based on the analysis of his genome, taken from a drop of blood obtained when he was seconds old: neurological disorder, 60%; manic depressive, 42%; attention deficit disorder, 89%; heart disorder, 99% with early fatal potential; life expectancy 30.2 years. We see the young Vincent and his disappointed parents turned away from a private school because the school's insurance company won't cover the liability. Vincent's parents make the socially acceptable choice of consulting a geneticist to improve the chances for their next child, Anton.

At the consultation, the parents are shown images of a few IVF embryos conceived using eggs from Vincent's mother and sperm from his father. They are told that there are four good ones left after routine screening. They ask for a boy with hazel eyes, dark hair, and fair skin, and are told that these embryos have already been screened to eradicate prejudicial conditions: premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive disorder susceptibility, propensity for violence, obesity, etc. They are told that they could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result. Anton proves to be exactly as promised.

Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut as his younger brother Anton goes on to exceed him in many ways, growing faster, stronger, taller, and not needing glasses. Vincent holds fast to his dream as his brother mocks him and regularly beats him at swimming challenges. When one day, Vincent beats Anton at swimming, he runs away from home to seek his fortune. He accepts a job as a janitor at Gattaca, where he scrubs floors as he watches rockets carry astronauts into space.

Watching other people achieve his aspirations only fuels Vincent's drive. He trains and studies on his own, until he finally meets with a person who acts as a fixer to set him up with someone else's genetic identity. Vincent's match is Jerome (Jude Law), a bitter genetically-superior individual now confined to a wheelchair after being left paralyzed following an accident (actually a suicide attempt). We learn that Jerome could not bear the humiliation of only having won a silver medal as an Olympic swimmer, when his genome had marked him for gold.

Vincent goes to considerable trouble to borrow Jerome's genetic identity. He makes minor cosmetic changes (contact lenses and hair dye) to approximate Jerome's appearance, even as Jerome assures him that the match is close enough, because no one is going to look at his face as long as his genome is good. Vincent isn't tall enough, so he has his legs lengthened surgically to reach a height appropriate for his genome.

Jerome sets Vincent up with blood and urine samples to manage the constant screening at Gattaca after he is hired as an astronaut based on his genetic potential. Entry to the workplace at Gattaca, as we see in the opening sequence, is based on a blood sample taken from a finger prick at the entry turnstiles. Vincent wears a false fingertip loaded with a sample of Jerome's blood to pass the entry screen every day. He scours himself every morning to remove as much dead skin as possible, gathering skin flakes and hair samples from Jerome to sprinkle about his spotless workstation.

As the movie begins, we see Vincent, as Jerome, working at Gattaca only a week away from his launch for a year in space exploring Titan. The Gattaca director is murdered in his office, and police begin their investigation by screening for any and all samples that might contain DNA. Among their finds is a lost hair from Vincent that reveals the presence of an "invalid" inside the Gattaca work area. The police immediately assume that this must be the murderer, and Vincent, who is innocent, must evade detection for a week in order to make the launch. The sweeps become ever more invasive and tense until Vincent's boss, Director Josef (Gore Vidal) is discovered to be the killer, ironically by DNA evidence found on the corpse. Director Josef had evaded suspicion because his DNA profile shows, as he brags, "You won't find a violent bone in my body."

As the launch date approaches, before Director Josef is discovered, Vincent's romance with his coworker Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman) blossoms. They become lovers, but not before Irene has retrieved a hair from Vincent's workstation to have his genome sequenced. Fortunately for Vincent, the hair is one of Jerome's that he has planted at his workstation, and he passes the genome test with flying colors.

As the murder investigation proceeds, however, Irene discovers the secret of Vincent's life. She meets the real Jerome when she shows up with a policeman at Vincent's place for one more DNA test. Jerome and Irene fake it bravely for the policeman's sake, and Vincent's secret is safe. Immediately afterward, Irene confronts Vincent, who reveals his identity as well as asserting that he has already outlived his predicted lifespan. Irene cannot believe that this is possible, as Vincent powerfully makes the case that it is possible for a person to exceed their genetic potential.

On his way to work on the day of the launch, Vincent thanks Jerome for allowing him to borrow his identity. Jerome responds, "I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body. You lent me your dream."

There is one last hitch before Vincent boards the spaceship. He is required to submit to one last surprise urine test, from which some cells with be genetically analyzed. The person doing the screen is Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley), who has been testing Vincent all along. Dr. Lamar sees Vincent's real identity as the test results come in and overrides it, finally telling Vincent about his son, "Unfortunately, my son's not all that they promised. But then, who knows what he might do."

Vincent is surprised by this gesture. He climbs about the spaceship to await the launch. As he does so, we see Jerome don his silver medal, climb into an incinerator, and turn it on. We are left pondering the mistakes of a dystopian world built on genetic determinism that can measure everything but the dimensions of the human spirit.

Biology Content - 3.5 flasks

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IVF and genetic screening of embryos. In the world of Gattaca, genetic screening of embryos following IVF is routine. This is done to screen out potentially deleterious and other prejudicial traits (premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive disorder susceptibility, propensity for violence, obesity, etc.). The implication is that inherited diseases are also screened out, and sex selection as well as selection by hair and eye color is offered. In the scene where Vincent's parents are consulting a geneticist to select their next child, they are told that they could conceive naturally a thousand times before getting a result that good.

Scientific accuracy. The technology for IVF and genetic screening of embryos was developed prior to the making of this movie, and may have served as a source of inspiration. IVF dates back to the 1970s, and with the advent of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as a way of amplifying DNA, it is possible to take a single cell from an individual to genotype for specified traits. For example, if the couple has learned that they are both carriers of a recessive allele for a genetically-determined disease like cystic fibrosis, single cells from individual embryos can be tested to determine whether that embryo is affected (25% chance), a carrier (50% chance), or homozygous normal (25% chance). Similarly, the sex of the embryo can be determined by attempting to amplify sequences found only on the Y chromosome.

One of the problems glossed over in the film is that the supply of eggs from an individual donor is very limited. Eggs are recovered following hormone treatments to cause superovulation; typically, twenty eggs or fewer are recovered. This means that while IVF and genetic screening can be used to eliminate the risk of homozygosity for a specific recessive genetic disorder (25% of the embryos), it cannot be used to screen thousands of embryos from a particular couple to find the individual who is one in a thousand.

Genetic determinism. As mentioned above, embryo screening for a very wide range of traits is offered. The genotyping of individuals is attached to very precisely stated probabilities for a particular trait. These traits include genetic predisposition to disease as well as behavioral traits. At one point in the film, Director Josef informs detectives that, "No one exceeds his potential," adding that if they did, "it would mean that we didn't accurately gauge potential in the first place."

Scientific accuracy. Most human traits, even disease states, are determined by the interplay of multiple genes and environmental factors. A relatively limited number of human genes have variants that give rise to an inherited condition not influenced by additional genes or by the environment. For heart disease, the heritability (portion of risk due to genetics alone) is only about 40-60%. For diabetes, the heritability is only about 25%.

For sake of simplifying the narrative, the film throws all human traits into the same bin of being 100% due to heredity. Even if we understood the interplay of all potential genetic variation in a single individual, which we do not, we know for certain that absolute genetic determinism with respect to all traits is incorrect. For some of the traits mentioned in the film, for example propensity to violence, we know specific genetic variants that place an individual at risk provided that the individual also experiences specific environmental risk factors. Oddly enough, many of the characters in the film are seen smoking, an environmental factor that places individuals at risk for a number of health consequences, influenced to some extent by heredity. The film goes to great lengths to show us that genetic determinism is widely accepted.

The central premise of the film is that the regime's unquestioning acceptance of genetic determinism is wrong. We see this most spectacularly by Vincent's triumph at the end, but along the way, there is additional evidence that they were wrong about Vincent. At birth, he is given a 60% chance of a neurological disorder; we see no evidence of that is his life. He is given a 42% chance of manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder; again, this does not show up in his life. He is also given an 89% chance of attention deficit disorder. His intense focus on attaining his goal of becoming an astronaut shows that he does not suffer from attention deficit disorder. Only the prediction that he was 99% certain to have a heart disorder is correct, although at the end of the film, as he boards the spaceship to travel to Titan, he has already exceeded his predicted lifespan.

DNA testing. The film shows identity checks that work in a second or less using a single drop of blood or a cheek swab. A drop of blood taken from a newborn is sufficient for full sequencing and analysis in a matter of seconds. The trace of foreign cells on the lips of a woman who just kissed a potential mate is sufficient for full genome sequencing and analysis in a matter of seconds.

Scientific accuracy. Current methods of DNA typing for forensics require a considerably longer period of time to complete the analysis. Even if only a few markers are checked, they are typically amplified through multiple rounds of PCR before being analyzed. Clearly, rapid progress in sequencing technology and analysis has impressed the filmmakers, but the speed of the analysis offered in the film is beyond what can be easily imagined in the near future, although we would be delighted to be wrong about this.

DNA testing to verify identity. Perhaps in order to make a point about the ubiquity of genetic testing, individuals are genetically tested again and again on a daily basis.

Scientific accuracy. This is less a matter of investigation, as a person's genome does not change from day to day, than a matter of showing the regime's blindness to anything but a person's genome. Jerome makes the point to Vincent that no one will look closely at his face, because they have his genome. Even today, biometric identification based on fingerprints, hand geometry, iris or retina scans, or facial recognition provides a cheap and accurate way of verifying identity. In the world of Gattaca's genetic determinism, we can imagine that all of these characteristics can be determined from the analysis of a person's genome anyway. It is odd that none of the current technology used to verify identity exists in the world of Gattaca.

DNA displays. When Irene has Vincent's (actually Jerome's) hair sample analyzed at a walk-up genetic analysis shop, we cringed somewhat as we awaited the customary movie-cliche computer displays of slowly-rotating DNA helices when the results came in. Imagine our surprise and delight when she is handed a paper printout bearing a text summary of genes and disease risks.

Also, Jerome's home has a spiral staircase (more accurately, a helical staircase) apparently meant to evoke DNA.

Scientific accuracy. In the brief glimpse that we get of the printout, it looks like a text summary harvested from a screen offered by 23andMe or another direct-to-consumer genome analysis company. Bravo!

The staircase in Jerome's home is unfortunately left-handed, while the DNA double helix of the B form as determined by Watson and Crick is right-handed.

Summary: Other than absolute genetic determinism, misleading us about how many eggs can be harvested from a superovulated woman, and a security apparatus obsessed with identification by DNA testing rather than by current means of identification, the science in this film is close enough to what is currently in place or envisioned to earn this film a 3.5-flask rating.

Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) Content - 4.0 hearts

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IVF and genetic screening of embryos. It is widely considered to be ethical to screen embryos resulting from IVF for inherited diseases carried by the parents, as this is a less invasive alternative than prenatal screening and selective abortion.

Sex selection is a more troublesome issue. Selective abortion based on prenatal identification of the sex of the fetus is illegal in many countries but is still widely practiced. In China and India, preference for male children combined with the practice of sex-specific abortion has caused a measurable distortion in the primary sex ratio. This has the potential to create societal problems, as many men will be unable to find marriage partners.

In between the extremes of inherited diseases and sex, there are a large number of characteristics that can at least in principle be screened for in a collection of embryos. Some of the traits mentioned in the relevant scene in Gattaca are cosmetic (eye color, hair color, skin color, premature baldness), easily corrected (myopia), or due to an interaction between genes and the environment (obesity, propensity for violence, alcoholism and addictive disorder susceptibility).

Genetic determinism. As part of the film's focus on painting the dystopian establishment of the world of Gattaca, the regime's faith in absolute genetic determinism is unshakeable. This ignores many environmental influences at least partially under societal control as a means to improve public health. Members of the genetic elite are shown smoking and overindulging in the consumption of alcohol. For disease states like diabetes, with a heritability of only around 25%, efforts at prevention through public education about diet and exercise are currently more cost-effective than genetic screening.

The genetic determinism of the world of Gattaca also presumes that we are able to determine the optimal genotype with respect to any given gene. This is only true if the environment is precisely specified and not subject to change. There are variant alleles of genes that result in disease states when homozygous, but confer an advantage to heterozygotes under some circumstances. Sickle-cell anemia and other genetic mechanisms of malaria resistance are familiar examples. Strong artificial selection for particular alleles by well-meaning genetic designers may have the consequence of altering the allele frequencies of linked genes, which might produce negative consequences. Because science is incomplete and incompletable, even in the world of Gattaca, artificial selection for particular genotypes at well-understood loci is likely to produce unforeseen consequences.

The question of the ideal genotype for all situations is posed visually when Vincent and Irene attend a classy piano concert by a famous pianist, who at the end of the performance tosses his gloves to the audience. Irene catches one, and puts it on, filling only five of the six fingers. As they pass a poster of the pianist, Vincent sees that the pianist has twelve fingers. Irene tells him that the piece that they heard can only be played with twelve fingers.

Genetic discrimination. The United States currently has a law, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), that protects individuals from employment and health insurance discrimination on the basis of the results of genetic tests. In the world of Gattaca, there appears to be such a law, but it is ignored with impunity when evaluating applicants for employment. A urine test for drugs (legal) is used to carry out a complete genetic analysis of applicants (illegal). When Vincent (as Jerome) applies for his employment, there is no pretense of an interview, only the urine test.

Summary. Gattaca is a landmark film that has had widespread impact. It warns us of a future that to many seems plausible. The arc of the story pits a courageous character and a handful of allies against a regime that the film shows has made tragic errors in judgement. This cinematic dialog has inspired considerable reflection and public discussion. The dialog is not particularly subtle, however. For this reason, we award this film a 4.0-heart rating.

Further Reading

Review of Gattaca by Michael Clark

External reviews of Gattaca at IMDb