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Dr. David Paul Bennett analyses why GATTACA is such an important 'soft science fiction' film. This article is based upon a film review which originally appeared in the Melbourne publication Serendipity.

The genre of science fiction film can be divided into two categories; hard and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction films (such as the Alien movies) are usually set in the future and have a loose storyline which is incidental to the high-tech gadgetry and special effects which serve as the main novelty and the consequent attraction of the film. In contrast, soft science fiction films are more concerned with storyline and character development.


The fictional technological advances set within soft science fiction films are therefore relevant to the extent which they complement the context of the story. This lesser emphasis on technological gimmickry means that the storyline possesses a greater capacity to be thought-provoking by conveying new social concepts. A soft science fiction film's cutting edge is therefore often determined by the extent which it causes the viewer to re-assess the future with reference to their status quo.

GATTACA, in this respect, is soft science fiction at its compelling best. This is because the discoveries and technological advances currently being made in the field of biotechnology are such that the potential for the eventual application of genetic engineering to human beings is quite plausible. It is this context which makes GATTACA's storyline so frightening because this film explores the possible consequences of moral dilemmas of the hypothetical scenarios which are raised in this movie.

1 The initials A, G, C and T,
cited in the notation of gene
sequences, are used in the
film's title.

A very disturbing aspect of the film is the Orwellian world which it portrays. By analysing samples of blood, urine, hair, skin cells and so on, a person's ‘genetic quotient’ and estimated life expectancy can be identified to therefore expose someone to discrimination and social predestination.

 Ever since the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s, scientists have been trying to map the genetic sequence (composed of the nucleic acids adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine1) which is the exact genetic make-up that is the chemical code at the core of all our cells. In 2001, scientists succeeded in mapping the entire human genetic sequence, or genome.


Story and Characters

GATTACA tells the story of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), who is naturally conceived. Within seconds of his birth he is seemingly consigned to society's lower echelons when a blood test reveals that Vincent has a 99% chance of future heart failure with a life expectancy of 30.2 years.

Vincent's younger brother Anton Freeman (Loren Dean) is therefore artificially conceived and his genetic code is scientifically engineered to maximise his biologically in-built advantages of a high intelligence quotient and physical strength.

Unsurprisingly - and unethically - because of this society's utilitarian outlook, Vincent's parents, especially his father, Antonio Freeman (Elias Koteas) favour Anton. The younger brother's smug condescension towards Vincent considerably compounds Vincent’s sense of frustration and inferiority. However, when, at the beach, Vincent outswims Anton for the first time, he gains the confidence to break out of the social and professional confines which have consigned him to the life

2. The film's term
for a naturally
conceived human.

of an 'invalid'.2

Denied any hope of professional advancement or of realising his dream of becoming an astronaut by entering the elite GATTACA Space Academy, Vincent disappears to become a 'borrowed ladder'.3 This term refers to someone who assumes the identity of a person with a ‘superior’ genetic quotient. In Vincent's case, it is the character of Jerome (Jude Law) who provides him with DNA samples.

3 So called because
the DNA molecule is
shaped similar to a
twisted ladder.

Jerome has been genetically engineered to near perfection but has become a cripple following a suicide attempt due to his intense disappointment with himself for coming second in a professional swimming race.

Posing as Jerome, Vincent gains admittance to the coveted GATTACA Academy and, despite his supposedly defective genetic quotient, becomes one of its top students. Vincent's capacity to deceive his contemporaries stems from their narrow mindset, which prevents them from even considering that a supposed invalid could possibly get away with being a borrowed ladder at GATTACA.

Someone who is suspicious of Vincent, GATTACA's Mission Director, is murdered just before Jerome (aka Vincent) is about to depart for his much-anticipated mission in space. The ensuing massive police investigation is supervised by none other than Vincent's estranged brother, Anton!

A fascinating dimension of the film is that character development occurs within the context of the insecurities associated with living in a society where one's worth and status is solely determined by genetic composition. This is evident in the way the characters conduct themselves during the murder investigation.

Even though Anton discovers that his brother has infiltrated GATTACA - which leads him to incorrectly assume that Vincent murdered the Mission Director - he nonetheless judiciously invokes his authority to stifle his intensely shrewd and cynical second in command, Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin) from pursuing leads which might expose Vincent.

Ironically, the Academy's Director (Gore Vidal) gives Vincent's girlfriend and fellow student Irene (Uma Thurman) the task of spying on the other students during the murder investigation. While Irene mistakenly suspects that Vincent is connected to the Mission Director's murder, she is unable, despite her investigative talents, to deduce that Vincent is actually a borrowed ladder. This is because Irene is in awe, if not initially attracted to Vincent because of her belief that he is endowed with a ‘superior’ genetic sequence.

Gore Vidal is aptly cast as the Academy's patrician Director. (This position is separate from that of Mission Director). Vidal's character contributes another vexing variable which Vincent must contend with if he is to conceal his actual identity. While the Director professes his admiration for Vincent's professional virtues as a student, he later subtly transmits to Vincent his suspicion that he knows his true identity.

Arguably the most intriguing character of all is that of Jerome. "Burdened with the weight of perfection", he evolves from someone who is initially contemptuous of Vincent's worthiness to assume his identity, to a character who becomes fiercely determined that Vincent preserve his cover so that the latter's talents can be utilised. In one of the film's most poignant and crucial scenes the crippled Jerome deftly fends off Anton's attempt to expose both him and Vincent.

There is also a seemingly minor character, Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley) to watch for throughout the film, especially as he comes through for Vincent at the movie's climax.



The film conveys an ambience of a different time period to the one in which it is ostensibly set, in a way reminiscent of the Hanna Barbera cartoons The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

Although GATTACA is set in the 'not too distant future', this film has a discernable 1950s ambience, which might have been intended to convey that the story's restrictive social settings are analogous to the regimented mores which popular contemporary culture caricatures as attributes of that by-gone era.

Furthermore, GATTACA’s original storyline is considerably enhanced by the film’s costume design, lighting, music and special effects, which establish an at times eerie ambience that bolsters the story's suspense.

GATTACA's Message

To the film's credit, the storyline supports the contention that a person's ability is derived from their character, rather than from a genetic composition. The qualities of perseverance and courage as well as the shrewdness which Vincent displays in overcoming the colossal obstacles arising from the discrimination he is subjected to, illustrates that the film regards the determination of a person's worth by their genetic composition to be erroneous.

Indeed, the feelings of inadequacy which wrack Anton and Jerome highlight that character is a more important factor in utilising one's abilities than a genetic quotient.

Historical progress has often been measured in terms of technological advancement and the extent to which attitudes have broadened with regard to treating all people with a respect which accords with their human dignity. In this sense, GATTACA highlights the potential dangers of the use of technological advancement being utilized to deny human rights. Therefore, while scientific progress is to be welcomed, it should not be allowed to threaten either human dignity or the sanctity of human life.

GATTACA is hence in the continuum of the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World. This book was a soft science fiction novel which anticipated a range of now contemporary concepts, among them the issues of reproductive technology and resultant social engineering.  

Similarly, the classic 1948 soft-science fiction book Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by that brilliant British social democrat, George Orwell, warned of the potential dangers of technology being harnessed by totalitarian regimes to monitor and control their citizens.    

The film GATTACA also highlights the potential dangers associated with advances in biotechnology, particularly genetics, being utilised to undermine the sanctity and dignity of human life. Consequently, the issues that GATTACA canvases are as important as those which were raised in Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Such is the power of the soft-science fiction genre!


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