It’s hard to work out if the 1997 movie Gattaca presents a vision of triumph or failure of humanity.
It presents a dystopian future which echoes the dystopian elements of our present and past.
In this future, people are judged solely by their genetic scorecard. Those whose parents do not engineer them for success before birth are marked out as an underclass fit only for menial tasks. Those who try to cross the genetic border are ‘de-generates’ and ‘invalids’ – a criminal other.
The “genoism” (discrimination) that arises from the use of genes to judge human worth, echoes the race science of Nazism and early 20th century eugenics in the United States. (See Edwin Black War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race) It parallels also discrimination on the basis of citizenship: the “legal genes” by which our legal rights, and fate, can be determined in the present.
Vincent Freeman’s genes are the wrong sort – a roll of genetic dice with predisposition to heart failure and mental illness. Vincent’s dream is to become an astronaut – to leave behind the world – but his genes say he can never succeed. Society says he can never succeed. Vincent impersonates someone with the right genetic code, and begins his quest to achieve his dream. His co-conspirator, Jerome Morrow, had the right code, but was born with bad luck. An accident deprives him of use of his legs. Jerome cannot cope with the failure that wasn’t written in his genes. The failure that should never have happened.
For his part, Vincent cannot accept the fate society has alloted him: “the only way you’ll see the inside of a space ship is as a cleaner”. The movie is an exploration of what it means to be human. Is a human life no more than the sum of the genes encoding it at birth?
In our present world, nationality can be more important than our humanity. Our access to rights and a future worthy of human dignity determined only by legal “genetics”. It is unlikely that our future will be precisely predicted by Gattaca. We do however have a choice as to how long we wish to wait to see the future predicted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the route we wish to take to get there.