What Price Perfection?

Consider God's handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked? – Ecclesiastes 7:13
I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to. – Willard Gaylin

Filmmaker Andrew Niccol, probably best known for his role as the writer of The Truman Show, likes to describe his stories as "films set about five minutes in the future." And while some movies claim to have been snatched from today's headlines, few would suggest that they are the headlines of tomorrow.

Yet Niccol's unusual and thoughtful science-fiction movie Gattaca, recently rereleased on Blu-Ray and DVD, bears out his assertion – a dystopic vision even more relevant today than when it first appeared in theaters ten years ago. Few modern films deal as subtly or skillfully with the issues of human life and human dignity, or with the consequences of our society's stubborn insistence on ignoring these issues.

Disturbingly, Niccol's future might not be even five minutes away: Recent studies have shown that as many as 90 percent of prenatal diagnoses of Downs Syndrome end in abortion. It is difficult to imagine a fact that more clearly demonstrates the selfishness of our times, but perhaps even more damaging is the fact that this sort of "selection" is done in the name of charity: "These embryos will never be able to live a full, happy life. Would it not be better for us to bring them peace? Why would we doom anyone to such an imperfect existence?"

Gattaca gives us the logical conclusion of such a "charitable" approach. Niccol, whose New Zealand roots place him in the coveted position of Hollywood Outsider, weaves a carefully crafted story of a world that uses its newly acquired knowledge of the human genome for the purposes of genetic manipulation, or eugenics. No longer must the talents and tendencies of unborn children be left to fate; now, science is able to give everyone "the best possible start."

But the film is more than simply a warning against cloning, genetic manipulation, or using our scientific advances to create "the perfect man." Instead, it examines the quietly disastrous consequences such actions have on the way we perceive ourselves and those around us. As the protagonist's opening voiceover recounts: "They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness. They don't say that anymore." Once genetic alteration becomes an accepted tool, nothing other than absolute perfection will do. Call it the soft bigotry of heightened expectations.

Vincent Anton Freeman is a "Godchild," conceived without the modern safety net of genetic planning or modification. Moments after his birth, his horrified parents learn that he has a 99 percent chance of a serious heart disorder, and a life expectancy of 33 years. This impending doom is a source of constant worry and frustration to his parents, and Vincent begins to consider himself a "second-rate human" – an awkward interloper into his family's otherwise happy life.

As he grows older, he comes to realize that society views genetic imperfections as a far greater impediment to his future than his parents could ever have imagined: Vincent, like many little boys before him, wishes to be an astronaut, but "Gattaca Corp." will only accept genetically "sophisticated" candidates. Naturally, they claim not to exclude the weak, as such prejudice would be frowned upon by polite society. But as Vincent says: "We now have discrimination down to a science."

Undaunted, he becomes a "Borrowed Ladder," taking on the genetic identity of what society refers to as a "Valid" human – in this case, a young British man named Jerome Eugene Morrow. A nearly perfect genetic specimen, Jerome was bred from before birth to be an Olympic swimmer and spent his entire life pursuing this expectation. An unforeseen (and genetically inexplicable) defeat left him emotionally and psychologically devastated, and a subsequent failed attempt to take his own life leaves him a cripple. Yet it is this broken, bitter man who now becomes Vincent's confidant and savior.

Jerome and Vincent must work together to avoid detection, a mission complicated to an almost impossible level by the unexpected murder of the Gattaca Mission Chief, the ensuing investigation, and the troubles accompanying Vincent's love for Irene Cassini, a young Gattaca officer earth-bound by her "acceptable level of risk" of heart failure.

Despite the complexity of the story, Niccol pulls it all off beautifully, giving the film such a coherence and consistency that it is easy to forget that Gattaca was actually his directorial debut. Ethan Hawke and Jude Law – Vincent and Jerome respectively – are both superb, and the supporting cast, while not quite as universally excellent, still provides plenty of enjoyable moments.

The work of Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, a longtime associate of Krzysztof Kieslowski, is worthy of special mention here, as is that of art director Jan Roelfs and composer Michael Nyman. The three of them help Niccol produce a sound, look, and feel that is equal parts neo-noir, retro, and futuristic – above all, this is a film of the immediate future.


Filled with fascinating and important little details – the presence of a helix-shaped staircase in the center of Vincent and Jerome's home; the significance of the last names of all three main characters; that Gattaca is a name composed entirely from the letters used to label the DNA nucleotide bases; that Jerome's middle name (Eugene) is not only Greek for "well born," but the root of the word "eugenics," to name a few – the film demands a serious, attentive audience, and provokes some fascinating considerations.

The movie's original (and ultimately unused) title, The Eighth Day, is a clear reference to the notion that man's pursuit of genetic perfection is simply an effort to improve on God's seven days of Creation, as well as an equally clear indication of Niccol's own views on the matter. It is a warning for that time when humans will control their own "evolution," and a suggestion that we should be cautious – even fearful – of the consequences of such power. The expectation of flawlessness is a very different thing from the pursuit of perfection.

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and stills are the property of Columbia/Sony Pictures and other respective production studios and distributors.