The article below first appeared in the Living section of revolution magazine (#6, May-June 1998), a print predecessor to this site. The original article appeared under the title “Meddling in generics”.
Beneath Gattaca’s serene exterior lie the clichés of the nervous nineties, argues Andrew Welch
The most striking aspect of Gattaca is its serene nineties style. Every shot has obviously been carefully planned and the locations carefully chosen. Newcomer Andrew Niccol has crafted a pleasantly non-commercial film – obviously not cynically constructed from the usual marketing analyses and box office recipes. Niccol has written an excellent screenplay, with strong dialogue, balanced pace and, as a director, he displays an eye for period style.
Where it likely appealed to the corporate cinema machine is in its highly-marketable treatment of contemporary nervousness about genetic technology.
As far as its science fiction credentials go it is a sign of the times that there has been no doubt that this is one of the greats. One reviewer gushed, barely able to contain himself: “with Gattaca we’ve finally discovered our generation’s 2001 – a film so boldly important, so vastly intelligent and so beautifully rendered that it will likely revolutionise the sci-fi genre like Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, Niccol dares to elevate the sci-fi realm to poetry.”
Yet behind this outwardly quite captivating film are a number of essentially conventional plot devices – sibling rivalry, police murder mystery, class domination and struggle against the system. And, as if often the case today with films promoted as the latest in science fiction, the barest glimmer of a futuristic dictatorship is sufficient to convince that what we are watching is worthy of the aesthetic and literary high ground reserved for intellectual sci-fi.
What Gattaca definitely is is a fine illustration of the way in which societal preoccupations need only remain at a very blurred and mediated level and are seldom examined in any depth. Films, documentaries and dramas can get away with weaving only the necessary minimum padding around these loose themes without having to do much work to guarantee success – the themes already exist in broader society in a sufficiently well-established form, and can be relied on as assumed ‘truths’. Needless to say, these dramatic forms contribute neither material nor depth to the issues they purport to ‘examine’; rather they reinforce through repetition.
In the case of Gattaca, the major assumption is that genetic technology will be used in bad ways – ways which will overshadow the potential for good it may have.
“The world of Gattaca is totalitarian, really,” explains the Sony Movies website. “Genetic engineering makes people better, more beautiful, more intelligent, more desirable.” (Sounds great so far; what’s the catch?) “But what price are we paying for it?” There it is – wrapped up in every technological breakthrough is the potential doom of humanity.
Also, the assumption runs right through the film that there is something sterile about human society with the imperfections removed. In an interview in the Listener, Niccol commented, “The difficulty is that when you’re in the Petri dish, eliminating the diseases, you will want to go further” (and remove the soul).
Gattaca is all about how little confidence humanity has at the end of the twentieth century. Whereas the adage that “every breakthrough reveals as many new problems” was once taken as a challenge to humanity, it is today seen instead as the price of the hubris of humans.
Instead of wanting to defend or promote technology, Niccol is happy to throw the baby out with the bath water. The evils of genetic meddling are confused with the capitalist system’s insatiable desire to control and exploit for profit. Science and technology are seen as having become the weapons of despots rather than keys to human emancipation.
Perhaps it is fitting that nowhere in the film does it become obvious why humanity would want to send a manned mission to Titon. Where America cynically posed on the Moon for the benefit of its Cold War propaganda, Gattaca seems to have no higher aspiration than seeing Armani in space.
Further reading: Ken MacLeod on science fiction after ‘the end of history’