An Unfiltered Look at the Engineered World of GATTACA (1997)

As usual, my reviews almost always contain spoilers of some kind. You’ve been warned.

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) does his victory march to the stars, in Gattaca (1997).
Note the pristine quality of this scene. Everything is so clean-cut.

Director Josef (Gore Vidal): “You keep your workstation so clean, Jerome.”

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke): “It’s next to godliness… Isn’t that what they say?”

This is the best line of the whole film, and one that exemplifies the entire thematic structure of the movie. Beneath the genetic engineering, social discrimination, murder mystery, and love, is the running theme of purification, especially engineered purity. And it is one that does not get enough attention. This movie is a blank slate. It features so much cleaning, sanitation, sleekness and polish, and it was all so purposely designed this way, just as the film’s themes of engineering and manufacture. It is engineered and/or manufactured cleanliness. Those who are genetically-gifted (literally so) are “clean”, so to speak. Those who are not, are not. And it’s this theme of engineered purity that underlies Gattaca’s statements regarding both science and society.

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) sits inside the engineered purity of the world of Gattaca (1997).

A film’s visual look lends a lot to it. Often times, visuals alone can elevate a tepid or recycled story into something entirely different. Classic film noir, for instance, relied heavily on its style, and still films that carry on the noir tradition (neo-noir, tech-noir, etc.) rely on visuals to a large extent. Other times, a film’s look can dramatically increase its storytelling power and themes. Science fiction films often employ radical visual styles in this regard. Such films are not just visually-suited for pure stylistic choices, but also story choices.

Gattaca (from the four DNA nitrogenous bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine) exemplifies this tradition.

Gattaca’s opening credits sequence makes apparent its clean and pristine look.
The film opens with shots of Vincent Freeman laboriously cleaning himself of any genetic “inferiority”.

It’s so clean and sanitized that it represents a future so manufactured, so engineered, and it not only includes the genetic makeup of individuals. Nearly every single action that any character in the film makes (with few exceptions) is cold and calculated (manufactured, so to speak), just like the backdrop it is portrayed against. This coldness is even apparent in the filming, itself. It looks so sleek, polished, crisp, bare and distant. Whereas so many sci-fi films have that polished look because of overextended use of computer graphics, for Gattaca (a film absent of CGI) there is actually a purpose to its polished and pristine look.

The genetically-elite walk into Gattaca.

“I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.” – Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca, for those that do not know or are too lazy to look up Wikipedia or IMDb, was a sci-fi film released in 1997, that dealt heavily with a society that had become divided based on genetics. It was basically a society that practiced genetic cleansing and/or eugenics. In this future, those with the means can literally choose the best traits for their children. These genetically-engineered individuals (“valids”) are the top tier of life and occupy the highest levels of society. Non-genetically-engineered children (“invalids” and “god-children”, to distinguish between science and religion), who are not given such opportunity, often occupy the bottom rungs. Even those, it seems, who are luckily birthed with the best of both parents have a hard time. Society’s class lines are divided based on genetics.

Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is confronted by his brother, Anton (Loren Dean) in Gattaca.
The contrast between the brothers is one of the highlights of the film. Both come from the same world. They are both alike and different in many ways.

“They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.” – Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a child born of parents’ love, an invalid. He dreams of one day going into space. Perhaps it is because it is not like Earth, a world that now acts against him because of his genetic makeup, that which he did not choose, nor did his parents choose for him. His brother, Anton Freeman (Loren Dean), is blessed with the gift of pure genetics and, as such, is pretty much given access to all of life and society’s greatest opportunities. Vincent conspires to get what he wants by any means necessary, even the impersonation of a valid, Jerome Morrow (Jude Law). Jerome’s potential has been destroyed thanks to an unforeseen handicap (or, as Vincent calls it, “fate”). Vincent takes Jerome’s place in society.

“They don’t care where you were born, just how.” – German (Tony Shalhoub), Gattaca (1997)

The main theme of Gattaca is, of course, the purity of one’s DNA, one’s genetics, and, as a consequence, the translation of that purity to society as a whole. Any potential genetic defects and impurities are weeded out the best they can. The result is a human being that’s as close to being as genetically pure as can possibly be. This a film in which purification is equated with perfection (cleanliness, godliness). The purer one’s genetics, the more perfect. Those who are genetically pure are prized in society.

Above: Vincent finds himself in the repetitious, pristine, yet cold world of Gattaca.
This idea of genetic purity is at odds with individualism. Nearly every person in Gattaca, especially the valids, seem to exude the same calculated coldness.

Every single scene in Gattaca is clean, sterile, polished, almost gleaming, shining and pure in its sanitized, antisepticised and purified world. The world of and at Gattaca (which is also the name of the institution in the movie) seems to be the endpoint of human science and society. It’s a society of purification. Its individuals must be perfect and, therefore, its society must also be, and anything that taints the purified, perfect nature of both the sciences (especially the biospace of genetics) and society is to be discarded, discriminated or, at best, ignored.

It is filmed with a wide and extensive usage of filters, to give the film itself a look of manufactured purity. It is an apt parallel to the way that the society within the film filters (or weeds out) the undesirable and undesirables. The bareness and artificiality of the world being engineered transfers itself to every facet of the film, from the quality of the film itself to the artificiality of people to the concrete and monolithic architecture of the buildings. To put it mildly, everything in this film is manufactured and engineered, but even more than that, it is engineered with a sense of artificiality and, most often, pureness.

Heavily employing greens and yellows, this shot highlights Gattaca’s use of brutalist architecture. The buildings exude a sense of engineered artificiality and coldness, a fitting backdrop for the story.

The film begins with a narrative recalling the early years of Vincent’s life: the natural birth, learning of his genetic “inferiority”, the overshadowing by his brother, Anton, the menial and lowly life of an invalid, the dream of outer space, and the plan to get him there. One of the first images to point out is the game of “chicken” between Vincent and Anton. Vincent may have a genetic heart defect, a literal physical disadvantage, won only by the symbolic purity of his heart, which gives him the knowledge, strength and the heart to beat his brother.

There is literally no dirt, grime, graffiti, gunk or junk to be found in the pristine world of Gattaca. This is to denote the cleanness of both the individuals and the society-at-large. It’s also thanks to the stringent cleaning policies in place. It seems that all invalids are good for is the responsibility to keep the world sanitized and in pristine condition. If the invalids cannot be thought of as genetically pure, then the least they can do is keep everything else pure. Vincent Freeman begins his young adult life as one of these cleaners, at Gattaca, a position which brings him close enough to his dream to taste it.

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) and Caesar (Ernest Borgnine) clean the windows at Gattaca.
This a very well-chosen shot: Vincent and Caesar clean until the windows will literally shine; but it’s an apt way of showing both a pristine mirror of society but also a window into another world and almost a reflection of Vincent’s dreams, which seem at once so close and so far away.

The cleaning scenes mirror the primary theme of the movie: engineered purity. The cleanliness of the glass provides a window into the artificial and purified world of Gattaca. This simple idea of constant, literally engineered, cleanliness of the infrastructure of society translates itself into the individuals who occupy said infrastructure. Thus, when Vincent begins to impersonate Jerome Morrow, the audience realizes that his days of cleaning are not over, as he must frequently, on an almost minutely basis, engineer his own physical cleanliness.

A disheveled Vincent Freeman helps to sanitize the purified world at Gattaca.

Look at how Vincent Freeman appears as a lowly invalid, not yet a “borrowed ladder” (as they call those invalids who occupy the space of a valid). He just looks… unclean. His hair is unkempt, he looks disheveled, he wears glasses, and his facial expressions exude somebody who clearly does not belong in the coldness of a sanitized and artificial world, especially Gattaca. Then look at his transformation into a full-fledged valid. He looks more handsome. He looks slicker and smarter. He looks clean, pure. He looks engineered.

Vincent’s impersonation of Jerome eventually takes him to the highly sanitized world at Gattaca, where his genetic superiority immediately allows him to begin climbing the ranks. The world at Gattaca is one of constant checkup of one’s cleanliness. There are constant blood tests, pop urine tests, and vacuumed hair, etc., are often checked. It’s a society of stringent upkeep of purity. But his dream becomes ever the reality, as he continues to engineer his life as a valid, with help from the real Jerome (who is living with him now, in return for supplying his pristine genetic code). Unfortunately, his reality may be derailed after the calculated murder of the mission director.

Freeman (Ethan Hawke) looks on as his coworkers discover the mission director’s body. Gattaca, 1997.

There are a few interesting aspects that arise from this state of constant societal and individual sterility (only a couple will be talked about here). The most obvious one is the actual murder of the mission director; an act that defiles the pristine high-class society, and not just because of the act itself. There are several scenes where we see Vincent tirelessly scrub himself down of anything that could give him away as a genetic inferior: hair, fingernails, etc. We see manufactured pouches of blood and urine, both of which also look like they’re pure. This is because they are, having come from a genetically-perfect human being: Jerome.

Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) chastises an officer of the law. A man with the utmost genetic potential which was destroyed by a cruel act of fate.
(Gattaca, 1997.)

When an eyelash of the real Vincent Freeman (as opposed to fake Vincent-masquerading-as-Jerome-Morrow-Freeman) is discovered, the invalid becomes the prime suspect. While the rest of Gattaca attempts to keep order and neatness, under it all, the entire organization seems to be thrown into disarray. How could an invalid have infiltrated and invaded the pristine, wholesome and pure world at Gattaca? Implausible, but not impossible?

Another is that the one of the really obvious signs of impurities is the smoking. Smoking, which taints the body, seems almost out of place in this sterile and clean world. Jerome, genetically-engineered to perfection, smokes constantly, and it could be alluding to his burnt-out state. They seem to smoke filtered cigarettes though. Another parallel to the filtered nature of the film? Every other single aspect of this film, from the title to the visual look to the cinematography seems calculated and engineered, specifically. Smoking should not be an exception. Smoking may be a sign of one’s genetic superiority. After all, there has been a lot of literature on connecting genetic factors to smoking. But perhaps smoking may conversely be linked to the issue of impurity that lies underneath the guise of purity.

In a wonderful shot, Vincent attempts to illustrate what Titan is like (Gattaca, 1997).
Vincent Freeman: “It’s got a cloud around it so thick nobody can tell what’s underneath.”
Just like the “cloud” around individuals. Nobody can tell who or what somebody really is underneath the entire smokescreen.

Another interesting aspect is the emphasis on the eyes and eyesight. Like everything else in this movie, the eyes must be pristine. The symbol of the eye is fitting for a number of reasons.

German (Tony Shalhoub) discusses methods of “improving one’s eyes” with Vincent.

“Myopia is one of the most obvious signs of a disadvantaged birth.” – Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)

Is seeing believing or are appearances deceiving? Gattaca deals heavily with this idea of perception. Vincent Freeman, after all, is someone who must exude the aura of one who is genetically pure. He pretty much has to trick/deceive everyone into perceiving and believing his lie. But is it really a lie? Has he become Jerome Morrow? Throughout the film, characters such as German (Shalhoub) and the real Jerome Morrow tell him that nobody sees Vincent anymore. When they look at him, all they see is Jerome Morrow. All they see is somebody who belongs in their genetically-cleansed world. It’s interesting that the eye is a telltale sign into the life of a person, but it seems that so many people refuse to actually look into anything.

A self-made man, Vincent Freeman, as Jerome Morrow, blends in perfectly with the genetically-cleansed in a purified world (Gattaca, 1997).

It’s also interesting that myopia happens to be mentioned, specifically. Vincent is myopic. He can barely see. And yet it is those who are genetically-superior to him that cannot see him for who he truly is. The condition of myopia also echoes a primary theme of closeness and distance. Myopia causes distant objects to appear out of focus, while close objects are in focus. For Vincent, the dream of Titan, the farthest and most distant any human being would ever go at this point, is so close to his heart that it’s the only thing in focus. To him, the dream is pure. It is the only thing that matters and he can see it as clearly as ever. This contrasts to those around him, who suffer metaphorical “myopia”. It is a shortsightedness that actually makes them “disadvantaged”. It allows them to see only up to a point.

The final and one of the more interesting things that arises out of this perpetual state of cleanliness is the dirt underneath. Beneath all of the makeup is a hideous and scarred face. It’s notable that this film actually depicts a dystopian society that does not look or feel very dystopian. In fact, on the surface, it could be utopian; but anyone watching the movie knows that it’s all too good to be true. Interestingly enough, “utopia” is Greek for “no place”. Remember that old saying: you can polish a turd all you want, it’s still a turd. Gattaca is so interesting because it’s actually about imperfections. It’s a society that tries to hide its imperfections under a guise of purity and cleanliness. But human society will never reach a level of absolute perfection. Rather, it’s about how humans can learn to appreciate each other, even love one another, because of the perfection that we see in each other.

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) and Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman) walk in the distance.
In many respects, the idea of closeness and distance presents itself as a strong theme. From the human relationships and Vincent’s dream of going into space in the story to the plausibility of gene-based discrimination in real life, all things appear to be within grasp and yet so far away at the same time.
(Gattaca, 1997.)

“I was never more certain of how far away I was from my goal than when I was standing right beside it.” – Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)

This is essentially the love that arises between Vincent Freeman and Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman). Irene is a valid. But because of her risk of elevated heart failure (Vincent also has a heart defect) she knows she will never be chosen for any higher missions. Yet for how distant the relationship seems to be, they become close not because of the absolute perfection that each appears to possess and the purity of their genes, but the purity of their love and souls and the pureness they see in the other.

Vincent Freeman and Irene Cassini walk together through a field of solar panels, in Gattaca.
The sanitized look and theme of cleanliness of the film is reflected in the high-tech clean energy.

The theme of closeness/distance in the love subplot actually finds its way to the entire rest of the movie. The cleanliness and purity of the movie, its sanitized and artificial nature, make it seem cold, barren and almost distant. Nearly all of the characters exude a sense of distance from both each other and society-at-large, almost as if individual personality has been purified out of the system and all that is left is this sense of a distilled and purified human spirit. There are very few people in the story who actually “think” for “themselves”. Even Vincent Freeman, impersonating a valid, must maintain this cold and calculated, a manufactured, personality. And it is actually Alan Arkin’s character of Hugo who discovers the killer’s identity after going against the grain.

Against the minty-clean backdrop of green, Detective Hugo (Alan Arkin) investigates the corpse.
(Gattaca, 1997.)

The story itself seems artificial. Yes, it is made up, somebody wrote it, somebody filmed it, and people created it. But in addition to everybody’s cold demeanor lies a story about engineering. People literally genetically engineer their children. Vincent engineers his life into that of a valid’s. Further, every plot point, every so-called twist and turn, every conflict resolution, etc., seem so coldly calculated and manufactured. Rather than seem like a natural progression of a story, it all seems so brutally calculated, just like the backdrop the story is portrayed against.

Anton Freeman (Loren Dean), Josef (Gore Vidal) and Hugo (Alan Arkin) in a green-lit room (Gattaca, 1997).
The film has a few noir borrowings here and there. Interesting that only detectives wear hats in this film. The man who refuses to do it by procedure, Hugo, eventually ends up solving the crime. Like Vincent, Hugo is an example of relying on human intuition and spirit, rather than human genes.

“His spit was found in the dead director’s eye.” – Hugo (Alan Arkin), Gattaca (1997)

Take the example of Hugo discovering that the killer of the mission director was Director Josef (Gore Vidal). A murder is literally an act of defilement to this world, though somehow even the blood of the victim looks sanitized and unreal. The solving of the murder seems equally perplexing by those who do not understand the thematic element. Notice how nobody wants to believe that Director Josef could ever commit the murder, based solely on the purity of his genes (he even tells the detectives to check his profile again, saying that there wasn’t a violent bone in his body).

Even the discovery of the identity of the mission director’s murderer, its solving, seems so abrupt, a literal clean break, so to speak. This is because the murder mystery is not the actual focus of the story. Or the fact that Doctor Lamar lets Vincent through to take his flight, despite knowing he is an invalid. In these cases, this almost manufactured plot solution and ending fit perfectly with the film’s thematic structure.

Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) takes one last look at his silver medal, Gattaca (1997).

The beauty is that despite its manufactured look and feel, underneath it all, this film is still very much human, and explores the idea of human nature quite well, from the romance thread to the relationship between the two brothers, and between Vincent and Jerome. The ending is particularly poignant and bittersweet in its own way. Vincent finally realizes his dream. Jerome Morrow opts to use the home incinerator (a symbol of purification in the film). Both cleanse themselves from the world. Gattaca is definitely a film that gets better with a second viewing. It is a great science fiction film which perfectly combines its sense and vision of its visual and artistic direction with its story-telling. Every thematic, story and visual element is interconnected.

It’s a film engineered almost to perfection. But at the end, it still feels human after all.

Vincent Freeman reminisces as he rockets into space, in Gattaca (1997).

“For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… Maybe I’m going home.” – Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)


7 responses to “An Unfiltered Look at the Engineered World of GATTACA (1997)

    • Thanks a lot for commenting.
      Yeah, it’s an excellent movie. After the first viewing I thought it was average; I liked it even better the second time around.

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