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Gattaca – Viewing Guide


Consider God's handwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked? – Eccelsiastes 7:13

I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature. I think Mother wants us to. – Willard Gaylin

Identity Gift, Identity Theft and Doppelganger

  • Gattaca is obviously a film about the potentially negative consequences of gene sequences: that is, the attempt to map human beings—their physical characteristics and personality traits—in terms of genetic information. As such, the film portrays the limiting effects of human trajectories and Big Brother's reach into genetic databases. Within such a world, the major male characters (Jerome and Eugene, Vincent and Anton) function like a carrousel of borrowable/exchangeable identities in which roles and personalities switch as easily as blood, spit, and other bodily fluids. Identify the major role switches and adoptions in the film and see how the film renders those changes in cinematic and symbolic terms.

Christianity, Mythology, and Humans

  • Beginning with the film's opening credits, Gattaca resonates with Judeo-Christian overtones that seem to juxtapose natural or "God-given" evolution to human attempts to control that evolution. As Vincent puts it in his voice-over commentary: "we have reached a point where we can influence our own evolution as a species." At numerous junctures, the film uses a (largely secular) religious vocabulary to make its points, without, however, urging a narrowly religious perspective. What overt and covert references to religions (Christianity) can you locate, and what might be their intended effect? What other religious and mythological allusions can you identify that help to illuminate the themes and ideas of the film?

Invalids and Big Brother

  • As Vincent (in a most unlikely but critical scene) is asked to undergo yet another substance test seconds before boarding his titanic spacecraft—and all his years of faking and hard work are about to go up in smoke—Dr. Lamar lets him pass and embark on his mission. He signals to both Vincent and the viewer that he knows about Vincent's false identity, and perhaps has known it for a while. What additional clues does the film reveal that Dr. Lamar might have been in the know for a time? Why does he, as a member of the medical elite and the state apparatus (and a putative gate keeper, if there ever was one), not reveal Vincent's true identity and score points with his superiors? What other figures might cover for Vincent, and what is their motivation for letting the invalid rise to the status of absolute validity? What might the film say more generally about individuals covering for other individuals in the face of totalitarian regimes, and why is such—in this case, genetic—repression (think Nazi Germany and forms of ethnic cleansing) never entirely "foolproof," despite its apparently close mesh? Why, in other words, does even a system that professes virtually hermetic closure have leaks or viral agents sabotaging its smooth functioning? Beyond that, if Vincent-the-viral-agent is seen as a metaphoric parasite infesting a closed system (or field) of genetic hierarchy, what may Gattaca want to say in more abstract terms about any process of evolutionary selection—whether controlled by humans or otherwise?

The Name-Game and Mise-En-Scène

  • Gattaca has developed a well-earned reputation as a well-made art film in which mise-en-scè ne and choice of location are intimately connected to the themes of the film. The design (and shooting) of the buildings, the interior architecture, artistic displays, futuristic features, as well as the more natural settings of, say, water and the beach, are integral to the film's visual orchestration. Similarly, most of the major characters (in my view, at least) carry highly surcharged names that resonate on various levels with the issues Gattaca is trying to portray, so that the names could be seen to carry information not unlike that contained in the genes that expresses itself in a person's "identity." In both cases, the codes have to be cracked ! What correspondences between mise-en-sc è ne and the film's major themes do you recognize, and how do the names of the protagonists relate to Gattaca's central concerns? What does "Gattaca" itself suggest, and where does the film's title originate? Why is it not called, say, Going to Titan or Deep Space 10?

Media Ecology and the Hierarchy of Evidence

  • What is obvious in Gattaca is that the entire culture relies on internal, genetic evidence to identify and classify its inhabitants, and the meaning of one of the film's key phrases—"your resume is in your genes"—runs like a mantra through the film. What is less immediately obvious is that other forms of, shall we say, old-fashioned evidence, such as photographs (whether analog or digital) or voice recognition (think of Jerome's British accent), tend to be discounted in favor of a presumably tell-all DNA. Once the "system" has taken Vincent's identity as "Eugene Morrow" for granted, that very system seems to miss the forest for the trees. When and why do photographs and other older media play a role in Gattaca? How are these media presented in the medium of film, and to what degree can they serve as evidence of one form or another? If the film complicates the presumption of the fullness and efficacy of DNA evidence as part of its critique of a genetic totalitarianism, why might it draw attention to older forms of evidence gathering and identity detection and description? What might the film say about the future of film, as one such older visual medium, in the future? Conversely, how does the film portray some of the contemporary means of gathering data?

Metronomes and Human Hearts

  • Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Jane Austen—you name it: all the hot shots on the Western literature and philosophy circuit have dealt with the most elusive and erratic of human phenomena: the heart. A biological bump to squeeze blood through the body, it is also the metaphoric seat of love and our emotions (notwithstanding that feelings, as we know, are basically the effect of synaptic firings and chemical reactions in the brain, the seat of the mind that is typically juxtaposed to the heart). Probe the references and allusions to the human heart in Gattaca and think about their "meanings" in the film? How does a culture determined by "genoism" redefine human relationships, both public and private? Why would a film ostensibly concerned with genes, and with intact interiors and smooth exteriors, fall back to one of the oldest literary tropes of humanity? Speculate and theorize, as Picard says to (of all "people") Data.

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Michael Wutz, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor
Editor, Weber - The Contemporary West
Department of English, 1404 University Circle
Weber State University
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