Uniformly clad in dark suits, clean-cut men and women robotically file into a grand foyer. They walk through turnstiles demanding a drop of blood in exchange for entry. They type quickly and in unison, facing forward at identical workstations, a chorus of keystrokes echoing throughout the expansive shared hall. Voiceover narration explains that they occupy a world where opportunities are largely determined by genetic makeups, and scientists have developed the technology to select for such factors. Embryos can be screened for diseases and genetic predispositions. Parents can specify hair and eye color, height and gender, abandoning fate in favor of the expertise of the local geneticist, “Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn’t need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”
The narrator, a man identified as Jerome Morrow, one of the genetically-engineered elite, explains his predictably meteoric ascension through the ranks of aeronautical navigators at Gattaca. There is nothing strange or mysterious about Jerome’s successes: they were chosen at birth, literally built into his DNA. Only this man is not Jerome Morrow, and such an admission serves to immediately throw the audience off balance, hurtling us into the uncanny valley where nothing is what it seems.
The narrator’s real name is Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). He’s a “faith-birth” or a “God child,” now more commonly referred to as an invalid: “a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.” He’s been paired up with the real Jerome Morrow (Jude Law)—a man of superior genetic makeup who fell off the grid when he broke his back in a car accident abroad some years prior—in a secret and symbiotic partnership of sorts. Jerome (who goes by Eugene for the sake of their arrangement) provides Vincent with his blood and urine, skin, and hair samples, so he can achieve his dream of space travel. Such an arrangement is aptly coined a “borrowed ladder,” since the recipient takes advantage of someone else’s squandered genetic superiority to climb above his own station.
As Jerome ascends, the ladder motif can be seen in the film’s architecture and set design. Gattaca’s convex skylight, single ascending escalator and neat line of treadmills, Jerome’s incinerator door and slatted window blinds all symbolize just how high (and low) one is allowed to rise. Also of note is the spiral staircase in their shared apartment with its uncanny resemblance to a double helix.
The film opens with back-to-back title cards:
“Consider God’s handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?”
“I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother
wants us to.”
And it is the story of Jacob’s Ladder, the link between Earth and heaven, that bridges the gap between these seemingly contradictory quotations. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize. Gattaca takes this theory one step further by applying it to ideology rather than objects.
Ernst Jentsch first identified the uncanny state in a 1906 essay entitled On the Psychology of the Uncanny. He defined it as: “Doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” Jerome and Vincent are not doppelgängers in any true sense of the word. Their resemblance is not uncanny. And, in fact, it is their upselling broker who points out the differences in their physical appearances. Though, none of that matters once the transformation is complete. Jerome’s physical samples—not his appearances—are the only proof Vincent will ever need: “When they look at you, they don’t see you anymore. They only see me.”
Jerome and Vincent are both sentient beings, living in a lab filled with vials of bodily fluids and sloughed off skin, hair, and nail clippings. They are animate. They bleed and feel and hurt, and yet it is by calling their identities into question that Gattaca risks depriving them of their autonomy and humanity: “This is the last day that you’re going to be you and I’m going to be me.”
Gattaca, named for the aerospace laboratory where Vincent’s Jerome works, was released in 1997 and set in “the not-too-distant future.” The film does not unsettle in its strange and unfamiliar vision of the future, but rather, in the way the costume and production designers have taken great care to make this version look uncannily like the past. The cars do not fly; instead, 1950s roadsters run on electricity and quietly buzz through the streets. The aerospace navigators do not operate tablets or futuristic palm-held devices. Instead, they sit at desktops with all-too-ubiquitous black keyboards and desktop computers. Books—actual hardbound books—litter every surface of Vincent’s bedroom. The police detectives, at one point referred to as Hoovers, after J. Edgar, wear old-fashioned double-breasted suits with large lapels and fedoras. There is a passing reference to finding someone’s services in the Yellow Pages. Even the medical equipment appears antiseptically outdated: ‘50s syringes with metal handles and plungers and glass jars filled with unknown solutions and unremarkable cotton swabs.
In another knowing nod to the past, a film noir-style crime drama is built into Gattaca’s DNA, whereby two seemingly separate mysteries converge around the murder of a prominent mission director. No one suspects the crime could be committed by one of their own, and when an unexplained in-valid eyelash is found on the premises, Vincent—the owner of said eyelash—becomes the prime suspect. The mere presence of in-valid genetic material is enough for authorities to assume the identity of the killer. In this uncanny future, where forensic science is interchangeable with criminal justice, DNA is the evidence (rather than a link to it), and being “other” automatically implies “guilt.” Vincent is not the man they are looking for, but he is hiding something, “Only one of the mission directors has ever come close to discovering my true identity. It’s strange to think he may have more success exposing me in death than he ever did in life.”
Gattaca borrows from the aesthetics of classic noir in the use of tilted camera angles, interplay of light and shadows, unbalanced framing, blurring the lines between good and evil, and a motif of paranoia and alienation. Vincent’s planned manned space flight—to Saturn’s 14th moon Titan—leaves at the end of the week. He only needs to successfully impersonate Jerome until then. Then he’s free, floating millions of light years away and just beyond the reach of the long arm of the law. During a night out to celebrate the impending launch, Jerome gulps down his glass of expensive red wine and asks with a devilish grin, “What’s Titan like this time of year?” Vincent blows cigarette smoke into his own large goblet, where it’s trapped and appears to glow: “What’s Titan like? Titan is exactly like this. All the time it’s got a cloud around it so thick nobody can tell what’s underneath.” In a film with no shortage of representative substitutes, director and screenwriter Andrew Niccol’s futuristic Earth—lit to look eerie, unnatural, and otherworldly with hazy yellows and sickly greens—mimics this outer-spacial simulacrum.
And while this future is suspiciously reminiscent of the past, there are subtle indications that this world is also unrecognizable from our own. The familiarity and foreignness of the setting work in conjunction to sow feelings of discomfort in the viewer. Take the 12-fingered pianist, who has been genetically engineered to make great art, his entire career made possible by a performance enhancing—nay, performance making—physical modification, rather than innate talent or 10,000 hours of practice. Or the sequencing of a potential romantic partner’s entire DNA profile from a single hair follicle or a swab of recently kissed lips, as if someone’s genetic makeup is the only possible criterion for a suitable match. Or being able to determine the exact time and cause of a person’s death within seconds of them being born.
As the scientific developments in Gattaca veer away from fiction and into fact, the real-world applications and ramifications appear to trouble Niccol, who plays a game of chicken with the subject’s darker undertones. He ultimately swerves by closing the film on an uplifting note (with Vincent quite literally rocketed into outer space), though the possibilities posed read like a warning for the future by way of signaling to horrors of the past.
Vincent Freeman is no less burdened by his own past—as it turns out the detective chasing down the mission director’s murderer is Vincent’s genetically-superior brother, Anton. These two also have a history of playing chicken, of navigating turbulent waters until one becomes scared and turns back towards the rocky shore. The younger of the two, Anton, is bigger and stronger than Vincent. He is meant to win in this game, and in life. However, against all odds and expectations, Vincent bests Anton on two occasions. He attributes his victory to never saving anything for the swim back; any success he’s achieved can be traced back to this myopic modus operandi.
The single-mindedly short-sighted police investigators, and their investigation, represent a clever device to intertwine two stories and bring Vincent’s to a head. Though, it hardly matters: Vincent is living as a “borrowed ladder” on borrowed time, and it’s only a matter of time until he is found a fraud and forced to come clean, until his defective heart gives up completely. And that is the uncanny power of Gattaca. In making the strange, familiar (and the familiar, strange), the film forces us to reckon with our own humanity and mortality and the fact that time is coming for us all. And, at least for “the not-too-distant future,” we mustn’t save anything for the swim back.