Gattaca (1997) explained: luck, ladders and the long con

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An ambitious young man cons his way into the Gattaca space agency despite strict genetic rules. Is he a hero … or a selfish sociopath?

What is Gattaca about?

When gene editing becomes standard in the not-too-distant future it leaves Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) out of step with society. He was born naturally, with all his biological flaws intact. That makes him an ‘in-valid’, a second-rate citizen destined for a second-class life.

Determined to fight his fate, he fakes his way into a prestigious space agency. But then someone kills his boss and the fall-out threatens to ground Vincent for good.

But what does ‘Gattaca’ mean?

Gattaca is the space agency Vincent joins, first as a cleaner and later in disguise as Jerome Morrow. As a top-tier profession, only those with the best genes can be rocket scientists.

The name Gattaca represents the letters GATC, or guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine. They’re components of DNA, i.e., the blueprint for all life.

The Gattaca building represents the hierarchy of social engineering. It also nods at the ambiguity of genetic manipulation and its potential for both good and evil.

Vincent’s quest in the film is to achieve the promise of his name. Not Jerome Morrow – his real surname: “free man”.

The long con: how Vincent fakes it

Vincent pulls off an incredibly elaborate deception in pursuit of intellectual freedom.

At first he works at Gattaca as a cleaner because that’s the only way he can get in. While there, he cases the joint and becomes familiar with the system (yes, this is a heist movie of sorts).

A backstreet identity broker then introduces him to Jerome “Eugene” Morrow (Jude Law), a competitive swimmer now confined to a wheelchair. Eugene’s in it for the money, though over the course of the film he begins to believe in Vincent’s dream just as much as we do.

Every day both men scrub away dead skin, loose hairs and fingernails. Vincent burns his, destroying evidence and identity in one go. But he bags Eugene’s to sprinkle on his possessions at work (in case they’re ever tested). Eugene also donates blood and urine for Vincent to wear, again to pass ID tests.

It’s both ingenious and very sad. Vincent wears the mask of Jerome Morrow, but actually exists in the grey space between both identities. He’s devoted to the performance of being Jerome Morrow, because in this dystopian future being Jerome Morrow is impossible.

Vincent changes his hair, body and even bone structure. But when he takes out his contact lenses to evade a police search his flawed biological self is still right there.

The transformation is only skin-deep; underneath he’s still myopic and barely able to see. He can’t change his genes, and they’re all that matter.

The two sides of Jerome Morrow

Jerome Morrow doesn’t exist – not any more.

Once he was a brilliant swimmer, endowed with the best biology money can buy. But despite his potential he can only win silver (another hyper-literal kind of second class). So, Eugene gives up both on life and being Jerome Morrow.

He prefers booze and recrimination, while ambitious Vincent steps into the empty identity.

Both men are incomplete, according to the rules of the hierarchy. But by pooling their resources, they create the illusion of space navigator Jerome.

This isn’t the only way the characters mirror and merge with each other.

When they first meet at Jerome’s apartment, Vincent asks who lives upstairs. “Obviously not me,” Eugene spits back. Again, Vincent slips into the empty space. He lives upstairs and Eugene stays downstairs – two halves of the house, as well as of the same, shared identity.

Vincent is genetically in-valid, a play on the word invalid. Yet its Eugene, the genetically perfect man, who is in a wheelchair. In the end, society, and social attitudes, invalidates both men.

Later when detective Anton (Loren Dean) tries to uncover the fraud, Eugene drags himself upstairs on his forearms to greet him as Jerome Morrow.

Of course, he is Jerome – but only on paper. Now it’s a time-share identity.

Having shared a life, the end of the film sees them share similar, mirrored fates as well. Both climb into rocket-like contraptions in smart suits and are fired into the next life. But while Vincent blasts off to the stars, Eugene heads for the heavens in an entirely different sense …

Striving for perfection

The Eugene-Vincent pairing has another purpose in the film. It foreshadows Vincent’s relationship with his brother … detective Anton. It’s also emblematic of a central theme of the film.

Like Eugene, Vincent is a swimmer – one who always comes second to Anton. But where Eugene and Anton give up when the current wears them down, Vincent gives everything to overcoming it.

His failures are a teaching tool that let him overtake Anton, ‘perfect’ Eugene, and the whole crooked system.

When the brothers finally meet again at the end of the film, they resume their open water duel. But now Vincent is by far the stronger swimmer, and surges into the lead.

“You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”

Vincent

This is the secret of the long con: persistence. And it proves the lie of genetic perfection (this is the reason Gattaca won’t accept Vincent, no matter how much he proves himself).

It’s also in keeping with the stories we tell. We prefer our heroes to overcome the odds through effort rather than the bought privilege of class or genetic modification.

Think too of the concept of 10,000 hours of practice that underpin expertise. Anyone who tries hard enough and for long enough can succeed; that’s how you beat the system. Or so we like to think.

The fortunate son

Vincent’s parents conceive Vincent naturally – warts and all – but give Anton the advantages of gene therapy. Effectively this traps the boys in alternate universes.

Anton soon surpasses Vincent physically, but the real heartbreak is that their father loves Anton more.

They bash out their rivalry in open water swimming. Of course Anton wins every time – until the day he doesn’t. This is the decisive moment, and the inception of the long con:

“It was the one moment in our lives when my brother was not as strong as he believed and I was not as weak. It was the moment that made everything else possible.”

Vincent

This also sets up the brothers as another pair of twinned characters or reversed mirror images (see also The Departed and Heat):

  • One is biologically valid, the other in-valid
  • Young Vincent is weak and sickly while Anton thrives
  • One becomes a cop, the other a con-artist – i.e., opposites of the same coin.

It’s also typical of twinned characters that only one can survive. So what does that mean for Anton?

During the final race Vincent turns back to save Anton, only to catch sight of the stars. The implication is that Vincent leaves him to drown, or maybe even kills him, to get the thing he wants more than anything.

If Anton survived, naturally Vincent couldn’t stay at Gattaca.

When we see Eugene’s silver swimming medal at the end of the film, it shows two swimmers – one in front, one falling behind. It speaks to persistence and luck, but also the tragedy of fate … and the depths to which some will sink to achieve their dreams.

Why does Eugene die?

Having sent Vincent into space, Eugene chooses to die. Why? Well, there are a couple of possibilities.

  • Sacrifice. Once Vincent leaves Earth, Eugene removes any trace of the deception by immolating himself. The sacrifice proves Eugene a better brother than Anton could ever be, because he only wants Vincent to succeed.
  • Suicide. Having previously jumped in front of a car, now Eugene wants to finish the job.
  • Loneliness. Having glimpsed the beauty of Vincent’s dream Eugene can’t carry on alone. This resolves the metaphor of striving: he gives up once again because the effort is too much.

Keep in mind that as one half of another twinned pair (mirroring Vincent-Anton) Eugene has to die. Both characters can’t survive – one has to fall behind.

Eugene donates every fibre of his being to the long con: blood, skin, piss and all. Eventually used up and obsolete he climbs into a furnace and incinerates himself, exactly as Vincent used to burn the biological evidence of his true identity.

In the end, Eugene is one more skin than Vincent sheds. And that may reveal something about Vincent’s true identity.

Who’s the real Vincent?

One question dogs this story: who is the real Jerome Morrow? Yet we know Jerome doesn’t exist except as a mishmash of half-identities. The more pressing question is: who is the real Vincent?

You can read the film as a celebration of persistence over adversity, common to much science fiction (see also The Martian). As one motto puts it, “Per ardua ad astra”: through adversity to the stars. This mirrors the film’s entire plot, by the way. Vincent battles adversity to lead the mission to Titan.

In these terms, Vincent is the plucky outsider held back by discrimination, and who finds a way to succeed nonetheless. It would be heart-warming, except that well, Vincent is somewhat sociopathic.

He follows his dream so hard that he discards everything else as worthless. He walks out on his family (true, not a huge loss) and jettisons Irene without a second glance. And he doesn’t dawdle when saying goodbye to Eugene – the man who literally gives him his life.

Vincent doesn’t think twice about assaulting a policeman who stops him leaving a nightclub. And later, he seems more than capable of killing his bother for the same reasons: to evade detection and avoid losing his dream.

The luck of the lonely man

On the surface, Gattaca is about a lone hero fighting the machinery of discrimination. And yet far from being alone, Vincent has help from collaborators and co-conspirators.

Most obviously that means Eugene. There’s also the broker who helps Vincent transition to his new identity.

Irene lies to Anton to buy Vincent time, and goes along with Eugene’s improvised patter.

And then there’s Dr Lamar (Xander Berkeley), the twist hiding in plain sight. Lamar knows Vincent is a fraud right from the start. Each time he mentions his son it’s an oblique clue that he sees through the charade.

So why does he look the other way at the end of the film? Lamar’s son is an in-valid. Letting Vincent beat the system means his son might have a normal life, too.

This makes no small irony of Vincent’s many deceptions, though. Presumably Lamar could have pressed the button to validate the phoney identity at any time.

And his final quip about how Vincent holds his penis with the wrong hand? It too reveals the myth of perfection. For all his elaborate pretence, someone sees through Vincent.

The science of discrimination

Science fiction may look to the future, but the problems it finds there are almost always reflections of the present. So it is with Gattaca’s dystopian world.

Vincent tells us:

“I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.”

The gene record turns destiny into a straitjacket, social engineering that can never be shrugged off.

Vincent’s destiny is to clean other people’s trash: it’s written in his bones. Those with better blood can be law enforcement officers, but only the purest can join the Gattaca space programme.

This is eugenics, “an immoral and pseudoscientific theory that claims it is possible to perfect people and groups through genetics and the scientific laws of inheritance”. The concept first appeared in 1883, to devastating effect.

It was key to Nazi philosophy in WWII, but some US states similarly used sterilization laws until the 1980s to weed out criminals, promiscuous women and idiots (an omnipresent threat in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Genetic manipulation has been science fact for decades. The 1990s saw several notable breakthroughs including Dolly, the world’s first cloned animal just one year before Gattaca’s release.

Gene therapy can end disease. And, if the benefits of science are available to all, it could be transformative. In the film, however, it’s only available to those who pay for it.

It can also be co-opted by eugenics to remove freedom of choice and the respect for life. And in the end, if we don’t have flaws, are we still human?

When they first meet, Vincent talks over Eugene. He doesn’t see him because of his disability, exactly as colleagues can’t see Vincent’s inferior identity even when his photo is staring them in the face.

Upstairs and downstairs

“Consider God’s handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?”

Ecclesiastes 7:13

The Bible quote on the film’s title card reflects Vincent’s fate: a crooked birthright that he’s supposed to accept as immutable. It also warns of the dangers of usurping the creative powers of God and Nature (see also the Prometheus myth).

But the quote also brings to mind the double helix of DNA, which resembles “a twisted ladder”. This is particularly significant.

Eugene is a borrowed ladder because he giving Vincent an illegal leg-up in society. It’s also another visually loaded phrase that harks back to the double helix.

Ladders are significant in storytelling for other reasons. They imply an up and a down – and that means winners, losers and hierarchies.

Eugene’s flat has an upstairs and downstairs that corresponds to the split identities that make Jerome Morrow. It also represents privilege and success (upstairs, progression, climbing the corporate ladder), as well its opposite (servants below stairs, unfulfilled potential, falling from grace)

Consider all the shots of stairs we see in the Gattaca building: the people there are on the up. In fact they’re going to the stars, and you can’t go much higher than that.

Of course, there’s no ‘up’ in space. It’s equally true that Vincent at the end of the film is going down into the stars. He calls it going home and yes, perhaps it’s where he belongs.


Gattaca (1997), directed by Andrew Niccol

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Picture credit: Faris Mohammed

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