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GATTACA (1997)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Free will, genetic engineering

CHARACTERS: Vincent/Jerome (Ethan Hawke), Eugene (Jude Law, the real Jerome), Irene (Uma Thurman), Director Josef (director of Gattaca), Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin, investigator), Anton (Vincent’s brother, investigator)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ANDREW NICCOL: The Truman Show (1998), S1mOne (2002)

SYNOPSIS: In a future time when people are born genetically engineered, Vincent is the product of natural reproduction and is genetically predicted to die at age 30. Vincent defies his fate and under false identity enters Gattaca, an astronaut training program for a manned mission to a moon of Saturn. Vincent borrows the genetic identity of a paralyzed athlete named Jerome, in the form of blood samples, hair clippings, and skin scrapings. When one of Gattaca’s supervisors is murdered, investigators are brought in and they soon discover the presence of Vincent’s real DNA. He thus becomes a suspect and attempts to dodge efforts link his real DNA to his new identity. The real murder is eventually caught, and Vincent successfully makes the Saturn voyage. “Gattaca” deals with two distinct
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: The morality of creating genetically engineered humans, and the ability to act contrary to our biological predispositions. Both of these points are encapsulated in an advertising line for the movie: “There’s no gene for the human spirit.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. When Jerome’s parents went to a genetics center for a second child, the geneticist stated “I have taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions - premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive susceptibility, propensity for violence and obesity.” The father then asks “We were wondering if we should leave some things to chance.” To this the geneticist responds, “You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built-in already. Your child doesn't need any additional burdens.” Would it be irresponsible for the father to want to leave something to chance?

2. In an outtake to the movie, the geneticist states that for an extra $5,000 he could give the embryo enhanced musical or mathematical skills – essentially splicing in a gene that was not present on the parents’ original DNA. Would musical or mathematical skill be more like physical abilities, which are pretty rigid, or more like moral qualities (proneness to pity or violence) which are less rigid?

3. Vincent states in the movie that “it's illegal to discriminate – ‘genoism’ it's called – but no one takes the laws seriously.” This is in fact one of the standard criticisms of genetic profiling: if we have genetic data on people, then employers or insurance companies will use that data to minimize financial risk. Assuming that this will be true, would the benefits of genetic profiling still outweigh the disbenefits?

4. Consider this dialogue regarding the rigorous testing of Gattaca personnel. Director Josef: “we have to ensure that people are meeting their potential.” Investigator: “Not exceeding it?” Director Josef: “No one exceeds his potential.” Investigator: “If he did?” Director Josef: “It means that we did not accurately gage his potential in the first place.” This dialog exhibits a common criticism that determinism is unfalsifiable – that is, an advocate of determinism would not admit that any test could even theoretically count against determinism. Is this a valid criticism of Director Josef’s specific position?

5. The moral message of the movie is that we can rise above our genetic predispositions, with specific emphasis on our pre-determined physical abilities. The movie’s message also applies to our ability to overcome pre-determined behavioral traits – an issue more typically involved in the philosophical debate about determinism. The prime example of this in the movie was the revelation that the Director Josef committed the murder, even though his genetic profile indicated that he was completely non-violent. Which is a better “refutation” of determinism: Vincent living past 30, or Director Josef committing a murder?

6. Near the close of the movie, Vincent explains to his brother how he was able to beat him in the swimming contest: “You wanted to know how I did it. That's how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.” Now that we know the secret, is there anything about Vincent’s actions in the movie that really refute determinism?

7. The original screenplay concludes with the following coda: “In a few short years, scientists will have completed the Human Genome Project, the mapping of all the genes that make up a human being. After 4 billion years of evolution by the slow and clumsy method of natural selection, we have now evolved to the point where we can direct our own evolution. If only we had acquired this knowledge sooner, the following people would never have been born:” It continues listing famous people and their illnesses, such as Hawking who has Lou Gerhig's Disease. A version of this coda was in fact filmed, but deleted from the final movie. How would this argument differ from the following: couples should have as many children as physically possible since limiting births would mean that we wouldn’t bring into existence valuable people?

REVIEWS

Gattaca is a most difficult film on which to pass judgment. Viewed strictly as a piece of film, it consistently delivers great characters, well-written and well-delivered dialogue, and an engaging plot. Philosophically, however, it is rather tempting to toss Gattaca out the window. The philosophical content it does offer is quite accessible, and rather than being incidental to the plot, it is actually the focus of the film. Its take on human determinism, though, can only go so far. In the context of the oft-seen dystopia of human reproduction guided by genetic engineering, the film explores a variation the old Nature-versus-Nurture debate. That is, Gattaca raises the question of whether the most important factor in determining a person's fate is their genetic predisposition or the force of human will. This is where I feel the film becomes an exercise in missing the point. Most determinists will readily point out that, though it seems the main character succeeds through his perseverance and drive, his actions can also be readily explained as the result of genetic and environmental factors. Destined to a life of handicap – as well as an early death – and having been raised alongside his genetically-superior brother, it only makes sense that he would feel the need to assert his worth by attempting to overcome his shortcomings. In essence, the main point of the film – and there are factors at play in human destiny beyond mere genetic predisposition – can and should be readily met with a simple question: "So what?" -- Frezno Smooth

Here, Andrew Niccol explores what might happen when the human genome mapping project is completed, and what effect that might have on the future. (Of course, by now it has been mapped, though his movie predictions haven't come true… yet.) Quite a few philosophers have picked up on the subtle implications Gattaca has on the free will debate, given that people in the movie have their lives predicted very probabilistically at birth. This argument could also be made for a movie like Minority Report, however, and I would really hate to see Tom Cruise join our list of philosophical movies. To that end, I consider Gattaca to be a good philosophical movie as it explores the ethical implications of "genoism," a fictional prejudice that exists in a genetically determined future. Niccol did a fantastic job exploring the future ramifications of mapping human genetics, from jobs that used illegal genetic screening on applicants to the development of new social classes around the differences in birth, whether "faith births" or test tube babies ("made men"). I really enjoyed the 1984-style world that was created within the context of this movie, as the new social classes struggled against one another, as epitomized by the plight of Vincent, the main character and "borrowed ladder." This movie was an excellent look into a potentially disturbing future created by choices that were being made at the same time as the film. For this reason among many others, Gattaca is among my favorite films of all time. -- Godboy

I like this movie a lot, I saw it when I was younger but never fully understood it till seeing it a second time. It tries to setup this impossible notion of an imperfect man exceeding his genetic shortcomings but I think it isn’t as implausible as they make it out to seem. Jerome very well may have died at age thirty except neither his parents nor anybody else took into consideration his upbringing and what effect that would have on him. It bothered me so much that his parents acted like he was already dead as soon as the nurse read the blood test results. If Jerome had been an unhealthy kid and ate too much and didn’t exercise enough he probably would have become obese and had heart problems that lead to death. But just because we have certain predispositions doesn’t mean we can’t overcome them. Jerome had will power and fought against what everyone considered his fate, showing that there is more to us than just our genes. If our genes told everything we were capable of and determined our entire lives before we were born then not only would we not have any control over our lives also we would have no responsibility for our actions either. Genes get us started. They set the bare minimum of what we can accomplish but they can’t hold us back from exceeding more. Jerome had to fight every step of the way but proved that it is possible. -- Jazzman

Gattica raises issues of identity and genetic essentialism/determinism. Essentialism is the view that our genes determine our behavior and control the development of our capacities. As in the movie a person’s genetics are very private and can very well be used as a basis of discrimination, this is the central theme of the film. I enjoyed the film. The cunning acts between Vincent and Jerome only proves that anyone can be fooled because there are never enough fail safe triggers to catch everyone. There are people who will always be able to get away with amazing things just because the right standards are not applied to catch wrongdoers. The film raises other issues as, whether we should prevent genetic knowledge. Because we have the biological process to map out genetic information does not predict external or internal causes that provoke change. What science fails to realize is that just because someone is genetically designed to be perfect does not mean that their logic will be perfect. Most people feel that our future is going to be brighter because of genetic engineering. I personally think that we are playing with fire. There is always going to be someone to push the limits and experiment with things that were intended to be left alone. What if the human race became so genetically perfect? Will everyone be closely tied? What happens if a rare virus from who knows where appears, will it destroy the whole race? Man in his own rights is not a perfect creature. Why should we as a human race think that we can change the entire race through genetics when the whole thing started with Adam and Eve? --Hippy

The issues of discrimination, genetic engineering and free will were most evident in this film. The movie was impressive with the director’s take on the reaction of society and the reaction of the genetic engineering phenomena that occurred during the movie. These issues are hard to touch however the director did an impressive job; personally the issues were very personal and well balanced with the movie. I enjoyed the fact that the main character was able to over come the heart condition and explore the cosmos as he had dreamed of doing. Genetic engineering would create a wide amount of opportunities however would the ends justify the means, would society as we know it accept such a technological advancement. Personally I do not think most of society would, their would be issues of that would be something that relates too much as god like, and worse issues may arise. The issues maybe hard ones to take on, however I would recommend this movie to anyone that would like a science fiction with relations to free will and destiny, to go see it. -- Ubermensch

“Gattaca” was an awesome movie it was futuristic and showed a possible outcome with the advancements in technology that are being made today in our society. I truly can imagine a society that was prejudice not because of religion or color but because of genetics and that maybe the movie was portraying a future that is possible. The serious problem is that even with the advancement who is to say that the ultimate virus would be created with the ability to wipe out a "perfect genetic society." -- Downwardly Mobile

I really enjoyed Gattaca. It raises some very good points that question the uses of technology in the not so distant future. The use of genetic research has led to humanity bio-engineering children to be free of defects and disabilities. The hero of the movie was a man conceived the good old fashioned way. He is doomed to die in his thirties due to a heart defect. On top of that he is denied entry into the space program due to his not being genetically exceptional. It turns out that he doesn’t need to be genetically superior to excel. He studied very hard and wormed his way into the system by borrowing another man’s identity. I found the prejudice against the natural humans in the film comparable to prejudices in today’s society. They were excluded from the better jobs because they were thought of as inferior. It was very touching how the hero was helped by many people throughout the film, including his boss and his partner in crime. It does a good job at showing that there are some things that science can’t account for like human will and determination. It also made me question where we should draw the line between science and ethics. — J.R.

Gattaca: Like most movies this semester I had no idea this movie existed but I should have noticed this one. Gattaca was released in theaters the same day as I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Devil's Advocate, Kiss the Girls, and Seven Years in Tibet. They had poor timing with this one. I liked this film a lot. I think it was a good sci-fi, what if story. This is probably where we are headed but I don’t think any time too fast. The 21st century, genetic engineering makes possible the creation of biologically superior human specimens, “valids,” who then grow to positions of power and prestige. A want-to-be astronaut Vincent born the good old-fashioned way, can only hope for a janitorial position. That is until he buys the blood, urine, identity, and skin flakes of a perfect but paralyzed athlete. And he passes every DNA test and gets a job as a desk worker, lucky. Everything is good until a murder in the company's ranks attracts the attention of a detective who threatens to sniff Vincent out. The film deals with personal identity, discrimination, courage, the burden of perfection, sacrifice, pursuit of happiness, sibling rivalry, society and control, fate, and whether human nature and the human spirit can be defined or limited by DNA. Most importantly, to me, it deals with disappointed parents. We all disappoint our parents in some shape form or fashion, shame on me, but if you take out all my flaws and I’m still not what you expected, shame on you. — B.C.

Gattaca raises questions I, and I’m sure many others, have pondered about the possible ramifications of genetic engineering. As science and technology progress, potential advances, such as this kind of genetic engineering, should be evaluated to determine their possible advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage of genetic engineering is that genetic diseases could be all but eliminated. However, as we learn in this movie, this progress comes with a price. First of all, it creates a new class separation between the vailds and the in-valids. This is a major problem for Vincent because his inferior status will prevent him from fulfilling his dream of becoming an astronaut. The space program would not accept the real Vincent because of his genetic deformities, even though he proves throughout the movie that he is fully capable of performing the duties of an astronaut despite being genetically inferior. On the opposite side of this genetic divide are the genetically modified “superior” humans. One would assume that being given a genetic advantage from birth would greatly increase your overall quality of life. However, swimmer Jerome is proof that genetic engineering doesn’t always make life easier. Unrealistic expectations are placed upon him and when he fails to meet these expectations, like when he gets second place in a competition, he is disappointed in himself to the point where he wants to commit suicide. So the ultimate question this movie raises is this: Is genetic engineering helpful enough to overlook its potential problems? Gattaca says no.

Gattaca: This movie was eye opening in the sense that society felt like they had to label social classes based on the genetic make up of a human being. Vincent is a man who starts out with a hard life, but is given the chance to fulfill his dreams of outer space travel. The technology and planning that went behind Vincent and Jerome’s scheme was amazingly well thought out. They strategically plan out with different tasks such as increasing Vincent’s height and making him use the opposite hand for menial tasks. I was very shocked to see the amount of effort that the two men put in the make sure that this mission succeeded according to plan. Even as Vincent’s brother, Anton, tries to convince him to leave safely, Vincent stays in order to complete the assignment he started. Anton is supposed to be much stronger than his brother so has probably been a little resentment toward that fact. The swimming competitions that they used to have show that Anton used to win no matter what. However, when they decide to swim against each other later in the movie, Vincent shows that he has the upper hand and is able to beat his brother despite his disabilities. — D.H.

An epic sci-fi drama, Gattaca shows us a possible future where one’s destiny is determined by genetics. After great advances in genetic engineering, parents are able to pay for ‘designer babies’, with out genetic defect and with special abilities (like math or music) spliced in for a few extra thousand. What results is a Brave New World-esque system of “Valids” and “In-Valids”: those who have been genetically engineered to be perfect, and those who have not. Our hero, Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke) is an In-Valid, but has a dream to become an astronaut … and just like in our day, only the best become astronauts which means as an In-Valid, Vincent isn’t a valid candidate. To circumvent this, he assumes the identity of a crippled Olympic athlete Valid, who’s now a real invalid. Everything is going fine until the head of Vincent’s company (called what else, but Gattaca) is murdered and the cops find one of Vincent’s In-Valid hairs at the office. There’s nothing special about the mystery part of the story and many of the performances are quite flat, which is a shame considering the talent of the stars in this one (Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke etc.) The real gem of this movie is the plethora of philosophical questions raised: the dangers of science gone too far, the problem of technological progress without ethical progress, extreme corporatism, and perhaps most importantly a test of determinism. I simply could not do justice to them all in this review, other than to say watch the film and take notes: you won’t be disappointed. — J.B.

Gattaca was an awesome movie. I really hate to think that the DNA testing done on the movie could be in our near future. This would wipe out and entire race of pure humans. Soon we would all have the same or very similar genetic makeup. Although we come from different genetic material, the more we pick select for the better qualities, then others will slowly be wiped out. Soon everyone will be virtually perfect. In the movie, I felt sorry for Vincent, his father never really showed him the equal love he showed to Anton. Simply because a machine he and his wife let fate determine the quality of life that his son would have. Once they selected the qualities for the second son, that is when the chaos started. Looking at all of the trials that Vincent had to go through just to achieve his life goal, I would not want that for any of my children. I would want them to live happy life not competing with their own sibling. I would want to save the competition for the other people in the world, and try their hardest striving to get the best. — C.J.

Gattaca is a great movie. The manipulation of genes displayed in the first few scenes is troubling. The idea of choosing your child’s traits, both physical and psychological, is interesting at first but quickly become unsettling. Although the film is obviously fiction, scientists’ future understandings of genetics could possibly make situations like that possible. One cannot help but pity Vincent. His sibling Anton is genetically manipulated and Vincent is not. The games of “chicken” are my most vivid memories of the movie. Vincent’s triumph over Anton is well-done and this is probably the best way filmmakers could introduce Vincent’s high capabilities. I loved the style of the film; Vincent’s childhood memories are futuristic yet have a 1950s feel to them. Vincent’s assumed identity obviously causes much tension and suspense. — C.R.

Gattaca is an interesting movie that has many complex issues in it pertaining to Biology, Philosophy, and Ethics. This is my third time around watching this particular movie, my first was in high school, oddly enough in my Biology class. The second viewing was at my own leisure, and my last viewing was for this class: Philosophy and Film. Anyways, this is an interesting film that examines the role of genetics and DNA and how they interact to determine the fate of individuals involved. Ethan Hawke, plays an intriguing character in Vincent, in that he plays a man who desires to travel to space. However, an odd heart condition keeps from realizing this dream, but he later comes in contact with Jerome. Jerome was a former swim meet star who has a stellar genetic history. After some painful procedures and extreme cover up procedures he takes Jerome’s identity so he can realize this dream. Overall, I really enjoyed this movie and it is an excellent science fiction movie, and also makes for good biological and philosophical discussion. Gattaca is an excellent movie that should be in sci-fi buff’s movie collection. — J.M.

Gattaca is easy to pass off as standard Hollywood fare; but the film creates a not to distant future that seems easily much like our own. Vincent’s struggle to become more than what he is “predestined” to be is an over-arching metaphor for the struggles multitudes of people have faced thought out history and in today’s world. The ruling “elite” have an ability to hold others down; Vincent takes on this establishment but the use of cunning and “spirit”. Vincent embodies that free human spirit that supposedly drives each and every one of us to accomplish such goals. But that spirit must have a physical link; and with Jerome, why does it seem his “spirit” is broken along with his physical presence? The film begs the question whether there really is a physical link to the human spirit. This physical presence has had a reverse in which an elite claim a specific ability that others lack. The film responses that it is the individual with this drive that is able to overcome imposed limitations. Vincent shows us that no physical “limitation” imposed by others can have a bearing on the ultimate potential of a human being; especially one with “spirit”. — L.T.


 
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