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He Had Everything Except Desire

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Underappreciated Gems | September 2, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Underappreciated Gems | September 2, 2009 |

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

Gattaca was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, his first and arguably best film, and produced by Danny DeVito, one of those names that seems to jump out in the unlikeliest of places but is generally attached to quality. Gattaca only managed to make back a third of its $36 million budget, despite widespread critical acclaim for being intelligent and thought-provoking, which probably did little to fill the seats. Nothing hurts a film’s box office chances more than being labeled intelligent, especially if something along the lines of “and action packed” isn’t tacked onto the end of the description. Sadly, if they’d just had Uma Thurman take her shirt off, they probably would have tripled their box office take. Add a couple of gratuitous explosions and a gunfight and I’d probably be reviewing Gattaca IV: In My Genes and lamenting that Shia LaBeouf ruined the franchise.

The film opens with credits overlaid onto a beautifully conceived visual effect: a slightly blurry zoom-in of objects clattering to the surface, bouncing and reverberating like steel beams dropped in low gravity. Fingernails, trimmed hair, stubble scrubbed off and discarded in a blue twilight, insignificant at normal scale but huge and tragic in tight perspective. It’s a nifty visual effect, but it also works as a microcosm for the film to come, not in a pretentious self referential way, but in the simple statement that this will be a tightly focused story of society’s discards.

In a nutshell, the film is a cautionary fable of genetic engineering and discrimination, set in a near future soft dystopia based on genetic predetermination. Comprehensive genetic tweaking of fetuses has allowed parents not only to design their children, but ensure that those who aren’t designed, or have lousy pre-natal designers, effectively become an underclass. It’s nature versus nurture taken to its logical extreme, in which the nature side has won the argument to the point that your genetic code instantly pre-rejects or pre-qualifies you for just about everything in life. We see flashes of our protagonist’s (Vincent, played by Ethan Hawke) childhood, in which he can’t get into daycares because insurance won’t cover him, his heart defect a pre-existing condition on life itself. His brother is the opposite, gifted with good designer genes, and beating Vincent every step of the way. Until the one day that he doesn’t.

The beauty of the dystopia in this film is the way that so much of it seems so innocent, so logical from the start. If we know which genes cause horrible genetic diseases, of course screening makes sense, and if we know which genes make someone intelligent, or naturally athletic, it only makes sense to switch those on as well, par for the course. It’s the sort of thing that makes absolute sense in a vacuum, and then twists upon implementation into something very different. Every dystopia is a utopia turned inside out.

The problem isn’t in the basic idea, it’s in the arrogance of implementation. It’s in the idea that we will get it right the first time. A few million years of human evolution, and it’s terrifically arrogant to assume that a couple decades of research will reveal all the intricacies of who we are. It’s an easy response to scoff that greatness is not writ in our genes, easier still to sneer back that we could certainly do better than the random chance of which sperm hits the egg first. There’s a third route of wisdom here, the idea that while genetic engineering and selection is a superb idea, that we must have the humility to admit that just because we understand the words, doesn’t mean we understand the poem yet.

The cornerstone of the film is that willpower and desire have as much a role in success as the pre-defined capacities programmed in DNA. At face value it’s a clichéd story in which heart and good old hard work triumph, right out of Disney’s archives, but the film transcends that boiler plate by introducing character flaws that induce thought rather than saccharine eye-rolling.

The film generated some minor backlash because although the societal discrimination against Vincent is unethical as a general phenomenon, the specific example of screening astronauts is necessary, something done today, though without genetic testing. Vincent’s heart defect disqualifies him for space flight legitimately, he doesn’t just fake his way past the identification and screening barriers, it is also very significant that he fakes his way past some of the physical tests as well. But in the context of the story, Vincent works as a protagonist precisely because he is not a beautifully perfect exception to the rules. The discrimination against his ambitions is wrong, the blanket denial of opportunity a tragedy, but ironically the dream upon which Vincent fixates, he really is legitimately disqualified for. His heart is weak. An illegitimate system of classism creates people that might otherwise not rebel, and more to the point, underdogs to root for that we shouldn’t necessarily want to succeed except in opposition to the system itself.

It also works as a metaphor for so many things: racism, sexism, any discrimination you can think of, any delineator that people use to deny opportunity. But it also works so well as a story because of the presence of Anton and Jerome (Loren Dean and Jude Law, respectively), presenting a counterpoint to Vincent’s success. Anton is the son that Vincent would have been if he had not been born naturally. They were raised together and one exceeds all of his potential while the other becomes exactly what he should have. Anton is the middle ground between Vincent (success despite condemned genes) and Jerome (failure despite blessed genes). Anton fulfills his potential, nothing more, nothing less. He is mediocrity, unable to comprehend how it is even possible for Vincent to accomplish more, his counterparts on the police force unable to look at Jerome and see him as anything but an invalid (a delicious play on words, amongst others like “borrowed ladder”).

What the film forces us to see uncomfortably is that in order for there to be success there has to be failure. The Disney crap version of this story never shows us that other side. Never shows us that although greatness hinges on will, it means that weakness hinges on the lack of it. But even more importantly, the two are linked, our greatness hinges on our weakness. Vincent never gets the chance to express his greatness until it is linked with Jerome’s weakness. The two become a unit, an odd couple who are far more than the sum of the two parts. The moral lesson of the film is far more complicated than some Frankenstein cliché of not interfering with that which we don’t understand. The heart of the story explains that in ridding ourselves of weakness we also rid ourselves of greatness.

“I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body - you lent me your dream.” -Jerome

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.