Science / Symbolism On Gattaca

Symbolism On Gattaca

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Autor:  anton  25 November 2010
Tags:  Symbolism,  Gattaca
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Hollywood-esque “Gattaca” is a prophetic distopia concerning genetic discrimination in the early 21st Century.

A true hero is one who is willing to commit body and soul to achieve a dream, discuss.

Gattaca is a provocative science-fiction interpretation of the future of genomics. Andrew Niccol’s presents us with insight to a pessimistic view of genetic enhancement set in the “not to distant future.” The film takes us through the journey of Vincent Freeman, and Jerome Morrow who with the value of each other’s body and soul commit and reaches astonishing feats of humanity. The triumphs of Vincent and Jerome can be seen as heroic, but what is it that makes them ‘truly heroic?’ The relationship between Vincent (mind) and Jerome (valid body) considered a metaphor of heroism, as they form allegiance and conquer the identified evil and reach a positive conclusion. So is a ‘true’ hero one willing to commit body and soul?

The deep space exploration centre ‘Gattaca’ is formulated around a system of excellence, in order to achieve successful missions into deep space an intense and discriminatory screening process is adopted,

Vincent Freeman is a ‘godchild’ who was conceived in love, he posses a valid human life, which is scrutinised as invalid in the face of a genetically customised population. He lives in a society where the elite upper class is determined upon the health of the body, those who have been selected genetically at birth to carry a statistically perfect life, those left to natural birth become the underclass, as they are born integrated with natural imperfection, which warrants discrimination. within a ‘perfect’ society.

The polarities of perfection and human imperfection play a large part in the film techniques employed. The ever-developing contrast between good and evil, hero and villain shows us how mentally constraining it is to break away from the homogenized society to achieve the greater good.

We identify ourselves with Vincent not as a criminal but as a hero, this is partly due to the film techniques. Niccol brings our focus to natural environments with darkened lighting with symbolism emphasising entrapment such as tall fences, hierarchical composition and heavy use of blue/black tone. The negative association with invalids is contrasted against a sterile bright clinical atmosphere representing an unrealistic cold valid world. A key note of the film is the conversion of perspectives, as Vincent becomes closer to his dream the more human characteristics are developed, Irene lets her hair down, Lamar tactfully lets Vincent succeed. The valid environment shows us much fault, Nichol may be suggesting that heroic behaviour is not associated with perfection and that merely having a valid body is not enough to reach full potential. “No one exceeds their potential” as the Director suggests, fortunately we discover that Vincent infact does.

Vincent is an “invalid” under the guise of Jerome Morrow, a genetically superior specimen who was selected at birth to excel in all physically measurable quantities.

Thematically we see the determinist perspective; Vincent is predisposed of heroic capability. He is brought up in an environment full of competition, primarily with his brother and notably the greater valid society. His parents Anton and have conceded hope in Vincent from day 1, they cannot see past the probability for failure; “99% for heart failure… life expectancy: 33.2 years.” Vincent on the other hand sees the possibility, from his perspective it is not a matter of chance, its clear destiny.

Vincent was suppressed in every aspect of his life including from his father, “the only way you will see the inside of a spaceship is if you’re cleaning it” as a janitor at Gattaca he was told, “dreaming of space…how about cleaning this space right here.” The more suppressed Vincent became the stronger his will to succeed became. Entrapped within his condemned body, he was aware of his physical limitations and is constantly reminded of this right throughout his life, Insurance would not even cover him at pre-school, “…but if something were to happen!” the only uncontested boundary and outlet are his intellectual limits. Vincent can be seen as a Hero as he goes against the current for what he believes in. Just as Hollywood heroes before him, he surpasses insurmountable odds with great courage to achieve his dreams.

When the body is no longer a vessel of progression, the strategic will of the mind continues, Vincent’s body prevents him from reaching his dreams, it’s a burden he doesn’t accept and in order to progress he rids the vice of ‘Vincent Freeman’ and is enabled the virtues of ‘Jerome Morrow.’ When separated the two individuals are incapacitated, but when the combination of body and soul are in concert, the intimacy is the nearest thing to divinity and the path of courage to actualise a dream is obtained and the destiny; destination, can be reached. A philosophical hero once said, “The body must be let go of, in order for the soul to take flight” – Socrates, this could not be truer for the collaborative efforts of Eugene and Vincent who both peak at destiny without their bodies.

It requires individuals of heroic courage and equivalent attitude to achieve within the scrutiny of a Gattaca system. as an invalid. To attain success and meaningful fulfilment within the totalitarian environment show how powerful must an individual be. The example of Jerome and Vincent is unique as it is not until Jerome and Vincent are united that the two become the formulae to which produces a full and true hero with both elements of happiness and self-actualisation. They both pinnacle ‘as true heroes’ in a cinematic crescendo, although its not until Jerome struggles to express his gratitude that the viewer sees the complete picture “I got the better end of the deal. I only lent you my body … you lent me your dream.”

Gattaca examines science, religion, genetic engineering and ethics.

By opening the movie Gattaca with quotations from Willard Gaylin and Ecclesiastes, director Andrew Niccol invites us to ponder the tension between science and religion with regard to the ethics of genetic engineering. This tension is further sustained through the complex relationship of the main protagonists Vincent and Eugene, who must ultimately conquer their own physical limitations in order to find ``God''.

As the titles run, fingernails, hair threads and skin particles fall to the ground in slow motion, giving way to an image of a young man vigorously scrubbing himself.

Along with a disturbing score by Michael Nyman, this obsessive-compulsive behaviour contributes to the macabre images of hypodermic needles, catheters and hospital bags of urine and blood. The shower from which Vincent has just stepped quickly converts to a furnace (is this heaven or hell?) while the inter-title ``in the not-too-distant future'' runs across our screen.

It is the same young man, Vincent, who provides a voice-over and our point of view in Gattaca - the antiseptic setting of a futuristic space program. Here, somnambulistic employees dressed as clones move in and out of a facility designed for cold efficiency. Note the cool blue filters, curved, shining surfaces and, again, a peculiar preoccupation with cleaning.

Loudspeakers welcome visitors to Gattaca in various languages demonstrating that, along with space exploration, genetic screening has diminished both the significance and desire for global boundaries. We are already aware that in this future ``blood has no nationality''.

For science now enables discrimination that is far more expedient than simply skin colour. Vincent, a ``God'' child, is conceived without the help of genetic engineering and is quick to realise that his physical inadequacies, in particular a congenital heart condition, will prevent him from reaching his full potential. It is worth noting that the setting where Vincent's conception takes place is made ``natural'' by the inclusion of beaches and palm trees.

As we remain in flashback to where baby Vincent plays with a toy cluster of atoms (similar motifs are repeated throughout the film), we begin to understand the hypocrisy of what this ``brave new world'' has to offer. ``Genoism'' - discrimination on the basis of genetics - is illegal, yet it seems that poor genetic outcomes such as Vincent's prevents insurance cover, which disqualifies him from pre-school - surely an issue that already has some currency in the world we inhabit today.

But although Vincent feels displaced by his genetically superior brother, Anton (note how he walks into the frame just as Vincent tears his own image out of the family snapshot), he is determined to fulfil his dream of space travel.

The initial swimming race where Vincent is beaten by Anton serves as a plot device pre-empting the climax of the film where both brothers, now adults, play ``chicken'' once again. Aerial shots intensify a terrifying sea and, this time, Vincent's victory. The irony is stark as Niccol underlines the central theme of the film - what constitutes a ``valid'' human being? For surely Vincent, an ``invalid'', has just proved that genetics has little influence over sheer determination and grit.

Enter Eugene. Genetically flawless but crippled both physically and emotionally from a suicide attempt (he finished second, not first, in a swimming race), he is continually compared with Vincent, whose genetic profile dictates that he will die at the age of 30. Eugene is bitter and twisted while Vincent is single-minded and driven.

Both, however, are essentially blind to what it is that makes them human. Vincent, desperate to conceal his identity from Irene, is nearly run down on a frenetically busy highway, whereas Eugene deliberately steps in front of a car in the hope of bringing about his own death. Both are so preoccupied with their own deficiencies that they almost miss their important ``spiritual'' journey.

In fact, both these men run perilously close to becoming like Anton - robotic and devoid of emotion. It is Anton who provides the real paradox here by ruthlessly investigating his own brother's ``invalidity'' and, in so doing, demonstrates that genetics does not necessarily correlate with one's humanity.

Indeed, it is Irene who, from the outset, seems to be more in touch with the natural world towards which Vincent is striving to return. Note the setting where she lives; rolling surf, pristine white sand, the warm light within in which she is constantly bathed, her disappointment with Vincent's supposed ``perfection'', her fascination with the sunrise, her ability to notice the change in his eyes after he discards his contact lenses when most people can only recognise human differences by a DNA test. Irene's costume and hair are much softer, feminine and distinctively individual when she is away from Gattaca.

Yet our focus continually returns to Vincent and Eugene, whose relationship not only dominates most of the film's running time but develops an intimacy that is as selfless as it is full of love. The overt twinning effect (Eugene operates as Vincent's doppelganger) combined with the homoerotic subtext belies any real attempt by Niccol to establish a meaningful connection between Vincent and Irene, with the latter finally reduced to ``nominal love interest''.

In an effort to conceal Vincent's identity, Eugene's loyalty is clearly demonstrated when, slowly and painfully, he drags his broken body up the spiral staircase - remember, he's scared of heights. Reminiscent of a DNA strand, the staircase is a metaphor for transcendence, for raising ourselves to a new level of understanding. Eugene, determined that Vincent too will break free of his earthly bounds - his physical being - recognises the symbolism when he refers to space as ``upstairs''.

Earlier, Vincent tells Eugene that weightlessness is like being in the womb and that in space his legs ``wouldn't matter''. But in the end, Eugene returns to where Vincent originally emerged (this time to a self-determined cremation), his sacrifice complete as Vincent is released into space.

The gift of the lock of hair is on one level a safeguard against Vincent's disclosure but on another a unique and somewhat childlike reminder of Eugene's innocence in a world gone mad with science and its attending preoccupation with perfection. It is Eugene who occupies Vincent's thoughts at closure, not Irene.

Despite having overcome their genetic and physical dispositions, it is clear there is no real ``place'' for either of these men on earth. By accentuating the tunnels leading back to the womb-like spaceship and the foetal position of Eugene in the furnace, Niccol has both Vincent and Eugene return to where science and religion originate - back to the stars, back to God, back to ``home''.

What a perfect circle. From the days when the symbolism of bloodlines determined fate and fortune, we have passed through a relatively humane era of trying to make things work for everybody. Now, it seems, we are heading once again toward a stratified society based on blood--not the symbolism of blood, but its reality. The Valids of Gattaca will set the parameters, the Invalids will rest resentfully in the underclass, and those in between will try to beat the system. Sound familiar?

Simple. You focus on what the movie is essentially about. I think this movie falls into the category of what Ayn Rand called Romantic Symbolism. It is about isolating an abstraction and presenting it through a story. So, if you don't take the story literally and only look at the abstraction which it has stripped bare for you, you will enjoy it! The abstraction (and the theme of the story) in this case is the power of volition i.e. the fact that human beings are masters of their fate and not helplessly tied by deterministic factors beyond their control. The fact that Vincent could succeed in a world which had already sentenced him is a joyous affirmation of this principle!

It is appropriate to mention a principle here, of mutual self-respect among individuals. I believe it was Ayn Rand who said (though I am not sure) that the greatest gift that one human being can give to another is the sight of an achievement. The character at the end believes that Vincent has given him something by showing to him and his son that success and happiness are possible in this world, so it was in return that he allowed Vincent to pass. If you paid attention to the dialogue in this last scene, you will notice that this character tells Vincent about his son who is also an "Invalid" but who admires Vincent greatly for what he has accomplished despite his disadvantages.

Genetic defectives have been a staple of science fiction ever since the discovery of DNA. But until 'Gattaca', the powerful symbolism of future genetics for present day racism never made it onto the silver screen.

This is raised to an inspired level by writer/director Andrew Niccol's decision to film it as if all the flashbacks had taken place in our own past. In written SF, this could only have been achieved by a complicated alternate reality setting. But, in cinema, Niccol's careful choice of fifties clothing styles, haircuts, and black-and-white family snap-shots powerfully evokes a past for the protagonist, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), which mirrors our own past.

I had expected this film to be bleak and oppressive. The premise, and the first half-hour, create an air-tight world where Vincent is condemned to second-class servitude because his conception was natural rather than genetically screened.

But Niccol skilfully switches the 1984 style bleakness into an ultra-tech murder-thriller, with the murder of the mission-director, moments (in film time) after we learn of the meticulous plan by which Vincent will pass as genetically perfect and achieve his dream of space-travel.

Suspense builds from this point on. On the first time of watching I was convinced Vincent would be caught, right up to the final moment.

The core of this film is in Vincent's words: "There is no gene for fate", although the official tag-line was "There is no gene for the human spirit". It becomes an enormously positive affirmation that sheer guts and determination will take anyone to reach their dream.

This is an excellent film, but it will not please everyone. It is essentially a short-story created in perfect detail for cinema. SF fans will appreciate the purity of the vision. But the film lacks the epic scope which most people associate with modern science-fiction cinema. And anyone wanting a special-effects laden space-romp should look elsewhere.

But, in its own scale and its own terms, Gattaca is virtually flawless.

For instance, the people are very cool and reserved. Nobody wants to let anyone else know that he or she might have a defect. So don’t expect great "passionate displays" in this culture. It is also, predictably, a very conservative culture, in the midst of a kind of 1940s revival. It is nice to see a science fiction film in which the implications of the new technological advances have been thought through. But Gattaca is not a science fiction adventure movie. Rather, it is more like a Jane Austin or Charles Dickens story.

Your name is Vincent Freeman, and you are a God-child. The prophets of genetics say that you have a 99% probability of developing a heart condition, and so there is no way you’re ever going to be admitted to the space program. You’ll never go to heaven.

But you find a "borrowed ladder," named Jerome Eugene Morrow. He has perfect genes, but he has a permanent injury and cannot walk. You can adopt his identity by using his body and blood to pass yourself off as him. Morrow’s identity, plus your own hard work of body-building and study, make you eligible to be on the first spaceship to Saturn, the beautiful heavenly planet. But in order to pass as Morrow, you need not only his body and blood, but you also have to scrub yourself clean of all defilements every day. (Does this sound like familiar Christian doctrine?)

Then you meet Irene Cassini. (Oleg Cassini discovered the rings of Saturn.) She’s imperfect too, like you, but unlike you, she has been cowed into thinking she’s not good enough for anything but clerical work. As you fall in love with her, and she with you, perhaps the heaven you wanted in the stars is available here on earth after all.

Now, that’s only the beginning of what is in this film. The movie is not just about love and heaven, but also about brotherhood, as Jerome and Vincent develop a caring relationship that Vincent never had with his own genetically-perfect natural brother Anton. Jerome himself, originally one of the rather hard, superior, perfect people, learns compassion through suffering; and as he gives his body and blood to help Vincent, eventually comes to the point of self-sacrifice, giving his whole life for his friend.

Religiously, the film begins with a quotation from Ecclesiastes, and asks the question whether the human spirit is encoded on genes or comes from something higher. The religious elements are in the background, yet they serve to fix the themes of the film. Vincent’s mother clutches a rosary, cross visibly displayed, as she gives birth to her "faith-child." The symbol on the identity cards of the designer people is an infinity symbol, but on the cards of the normal people is a cross. When Vincent is accepted to go to Saturn, Jerome exclaims pregnantly: "They’re sending you up there, for Christ’s sake! You! Of all people!"

The imagery in the film is consistent: Virtually everything looks like the curved rings of Saturn: the desks of the workers in the Gattaca complex; the ceiling of the Gattaca complex; the field of solar mirrors that Irene and Vincent visit; the designs at the night club they visit; the circular dais of the piano; the circular tunnel leading to the space ship. And then there is the staircase shaped like DNA.

At the end, you enter a tunnel to go into a space ship to go to Saturn, thanks to grace alone as it turns out. But you’ve already been through a tunnel: a traffic tunnel that led to a roadside, where you parked and then made a very dangerous highway crossing to be with your real Saturn, Irene Cassini, in the beautiful field of sunrise mirrors.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this wonderful movie here. It is one to watch and watch again (I saw it four times in the theater), and eventually will be recognized as the best movie of 1997, far better than Titanic.

One of the subtler pieces of symbolism in this movie is the spiral staircase in Vincent's and Eugene's house, which is designed to resemble the DNA double helix. Some SPOILERS follow:

• A common term for the person Vincent has become is a "borrowed ladder". Vincent is borrowing the house, and specifically the upper level, from Eugene along with his identity.

• When Vincent moves into the house, Eugene lives on the lower level, at the bottom of the ladder/helix, while Vincent lives on the top. Following his accident, Eugene has reached the bottom of his genetic potential, while Vincent uses his genetic material to climb to the top of that potential.

• When the police inspector comes to the house looking for Jerome/Vincent, Jerome/Eugene has to make the incredibly difficult climb up the stairs to the top level using only his arms. He has to borrow the "borrowed ladder" back from Vincent and climb to the top to be Jerome again, achieving his own potential through a physically demanding activity. (I guess all that Olympic swimming paid off.)

• Finally, when the police inspector descends the stairs to see what's on the lower level, Vincent is already there hiding behind a pillar. Vincent is literally hiding behind Eugene's "borrowed ladder" to keep his true identity out of view of the police and his own superiors.

A kinder, gentler eugenics

Beginning with the title, GATTACA, and present throughout the film are the symbols and signs of what has been frequently called our current revolution in biology. In GATTACA, we are introduced to a revolution against the societies created in the new biological age. The plot concerns a young man’s struggle to overcome his destiny, which is determined by his genetic probability to be healthy, intelligent and gifted. The young man, Vincent Freeman, struggles to live up to his name in a society that has been re-ordered through socio-biological innovation.

As with many lead characters who are victims in the horror genre, Vincent is a social outcast, a freak in the genetically-enhanced society, naturally born without the “benefits” of genetic counseling or genetic intervention. In this “genoist” society—a society where your genetic code determines your social class—a new kind of “compassionate conservative” eugenics has become not only normal, but institutionalized. Vincent’s high likelihood of developing heart failure in early adulthood condemns him to the lowest class of work. He and others like him are called “degenerates”, which is pronounced “de-GENE-erates,” a play on words using the original term recycled from the eugenics movements of the past.

In order to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut, he “disappears” from his home, his family and society, and buys a new genetic identity on the black market. Jerome Eugene Morrow, genetically perfect but paralyzed from the waist down as a result of an accident, sells Vincent his genetic identity in exchange for financial support. With hair, skin flakes, and urine farmed from Jerome, Vincent fights to achieve his dreams in this biologically deterministic society with nothing but the sheer force of his free will and a great deal of money, pain and personal sacrifice.

The film GATTACA is breathtakingly thorough in its use of biology. Through elegant microscale photography, we enter the world of sloughed skin, fallen hairs, and cell filled traces of fingerprints that are the imprints of who we are, the traces of where we have been. Through a speculative plot focusing on a society that embraces biological determinism as a major organizing principle, GATTACA brings us to consider how biological advances can enslave us as much as they offer us cures. In GATTACA they have realized one kind of eugenic society first promoted at the turn of the 20th century, but have found that this biological future is a dystopia for many that must live in it.

The story of GATTACA incorporates advances in biology since the time of Island of Lost Souls. The eugenics movement of the 20s and 30s in America was greatly challenged after the cruel and horrifying use of eugenic ideas by the Nazi political leadership as justification for categorizing, experimenting on and killing millions of people in Germany, 1933-1945.3 GATTACA considers how biological methods discovered since that time may be providing an impetus for some scientists to pursue once again this vision of a “biologically enhanced” society. Key discoveries that have been made since 1932 include: the identification of chromosomes; development of statistics that predict the units of heredity within a population of organisms; the discovery of DNA and the gene; and the ability to decode, move, and create new genes in living organisms. The resurgent interest in the so-called “new eugenics” was evident in 1997, the same year that GATTACA was released in the theater. Princeton geneticist Lee M. Silver, for example, detailed some of the virtues of a new eugenics in his book, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. Many more scientists have followed suit, with some suggesting that within decades, entire societies will be determined by genetic technologies.

BioHorror stories such as GATTACA and Island of Lost Souls help us to reevaluate such claims. Films in the BioHorror genre in particular suggest that we reconsider the idea that biology is inherently beneficial by showing us where the science could go without the oversight of an attentive public. Classic films such as Island of Lost Souls offer us a glimpse into the history of public debate about biological ideas and abuse of biological technologies that have taken place for almost two centuries. As the “biological revolution” evolves, we can foresee possible risks and consequences of transforming our essential biological nature—from giant tarantulas and gill men, to Vincent Freeman and genetic determinism. By following the thread of biological innovations and controversies through time, we can better appreciate the roles played by contemporary films such as GATTACA.

With biological technologies that have greatly increased our power to manipulate bodies biologically, I don’t doubt that there will be a plethora of films that continue to address the threat of unchecked biological science in contemporary film. Each discovery in biology brings a round of new, troubling conundrums that society, not science, has to grapple with. These films provide some reassurance that public concerns about the potential applications of biological technologies are not completely unfounded. Indeed, the prescience of some classic BioHorror stories regarding the potential harm of biological technologies validates the need to proceed with caution and deliberation in their use.

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