How does ‘Gattaca’ contrast the lives of Vincent and Anton? Why is this effective?
Although Vincent and Anton are brothers, they have an extremely different status in society. This difference is purely due to their genetic code, as the genetically engineered Anton is seen as far superior to the faith-birth Vincent. These differences are made clear in Vincent’s flashbacks to his early childhood, where his brother is given preferential treatment over him. Vincent’s parents view him as a disappointment not worthy of his father’s name, whereas they are extremely proud of Anton. This parallel between the plight of valids and invalids is effective as it clearly illustrates the discrimination within the society, as well as the negative implications of determining an individual’s self-worth based on their genes.
Comment on the significance of Irene’s character. How does she change when she meets Vincent?
Initially, Irene is a product of the society in which she lives. At the start of the film, she firmly believes that valids are superior, and that a person’s strength of character can be calculated by their genetic makeup. Vincent comments that this lifestyle has made her miserable, as he confronts her “You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene? They've got you looking for any flaw, and after a while that's all you see.” Her perspective drastically changes when she learns that the person she knew as Jerome Morrow was actually Vincent, an invalid in disguise. This shocking revelation causes her to reassess the importance of genes. This is clearly seen when Vincent hands her a strand of his hair and tells her to have it tested, to see if she still wants to be with him once she learns of his genetic shortcomings. Irene immediately throws the hair away, signifying that she now loves Vincent despite the fact that he is an invalid. Hence, throughout the film, she has come to realize that a person’s character is more important than their genetic code.
How does Vincent respond to his low status in society?
Although Vincent is constantly treated as an outcast, he does not give up on his dreams and aspirations. Instead, Vincent is determined to succeed against all odds. Vincent tricks society by posing as the genetically superior Jerome Morrow. However, it is Vincent’s willpower and drive, rather than Jerome’s genes, which grant him this ultimate success. Vincent constantly claims that he is just as deserving as any valid is, claiming “I was as good as any, and better than most.”
Why does Vincent begin to have second thoughts about leaving Titan? How does he overcome these doubts?
Days before his spaceship is due to set off, Vincent experiences strong internal conflict. This is clearly illustrated in his quote “It's funny, you work so hard, you do everything you can to get away from a place, and when you finally get your chance to leave, you find a reason to stay.” Vincent’s doubts are primarily driven by fear of the unknown, as he is still shocked by how far he came in a society that taught him he would achieve nothing. He also fears leaving Irene behind, as he deeply loves her, and is afraid that Jerome will revert back into depression if left alone. However, Vincent continues with his childhood dream of leaving earth to travel space, believing that these thoughts are just one final obstacle he has to overcome. He finds solace in the thought that he is about to achieve his destiny, as he states “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 every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving... maybe I'm going home.”
How does Gattaca explore issues of personal identity and individuality?
The film explores complex notions of identity and individuality. The overarching message of the film is that identity is not tied to genetic makeup, and that an individual’s self worth is not bound to their genetic material. Both Vincent and Jerome are key individuals who defy their genetic state. Vincent challenges the eugenics system to discover his true potential, whereas Jerome has had his potential, guaranteed at birth, tragically undermined. In this way, Gattaca emphasizes that passion, ambition and drive are the true markers of humanity and identity. Gattaca also explores the importance of individuality. Within the Gattaca Institute there is a lack of individuality. Workers dress the same, do not interact with each other, and are almost indistinguishable from one another. Hence, the film suggests that a focus on perfection eradicates individuality.
How do visual elements and symbols represent Vincent’s struggle in society, and his eventual success?
The film employs a number of symbols of entrapment to illustrate that Vincent is trapped in a society that believes that “no one exceeds his potential.” A clear example of this is during the flashback of his childhood, where there is a closeup of a metal gate closing in his face. This represents the numerous opportunities that Vincent is not allowed to partake in, due to his predetermined status as an invalid. These symbols are also evident when Vincent becomes a janitor at the Gattaca Institute. He constantly looks up towards the glass roof between him and the departing space ships, representing the ‘glass ceiling’ effect, that is, the barrier that prevents discriminated individuals from excelling in a profession. However, there are also a number of optimistic symbols throughout the film, such as ladders and staircases, which represent his ascent to the stars.
Scenes 1 – 3: First scene to “I am not Jerome Morrow”
The first scene of Gattaca creates an immediate sense of success and ambition, while maintaining a strong atmosphere of ambiguity. The scene begins with a panning shot of the interior of the Gattaca Institute. The crisp white walls, artificial light and minimalistic decorations indicate the structured and rigid nature of the society, as there is no room for imperfections. An establishing shot indicates hundreds of workers dressed in suits, ascending an elevator. The costuming and low-angle shots of the rising figures indicate that these are the elite in society. Among these figures, the camera zooms in towards an unnamed man, who becomes the protagonist of the film.
We first see him as he reaches the very top of the elevator, foreshadowing his remarkable success and transition throughout the film. His appearance is very professional, as he has slicked back hair, a suit and a tie. He pricks his finger on a device, activating a green light, signaling his genetic code. He walks away with a calm demeanor and confident step. Sound effects illustrate the lack of warmth within the institute, as repetitive loud footsteps emphasize the monotony and lack of individuality within the place. As the man, introduced as Jerome, sits at his desk, he uses a small vacuum to clean particles from his computer keyboard. We do not learn until later in the film that he is doing this to eradicate any traces of his DNA. There is then an extreme close up as he opens a jar and sprinkles its contents – skin, hair and nails – around his work station. Skin, hair and nails are a key motif throughout the film, as they represent the society’s obsession with genetic material.
In this first scene, we learn that the man referred to as Jerome is an astronaut, and will be travelling to Titan within a week. The mission director informs him that “It’s right that someone like you is taking us to Titan.” This quote is significant, as it indicates that the protagonist is in fact perfect for the job (despite his inferior DNA).
The scene then moves to a doctor’s office, where the man undertakes a substance test. Urine tests and blood tests are a common practice within the institute, to ensure that workers are who they claim to be. When his sample is analyzed, his name appears on a computer screen under the name ‘Jerome Morrow: VALID’, beside the infinity symbol, representing success and endless possibilities. We find out the meaning of the term ‘valid’ during flashbacks in later scenes, and this delay of information creates suspense and intrigue.
The scene ends with the protagonist narrating, his voice over occurring as he walks towards a window and gazes at a spaceship leaving earth. The voice over states “The most unremarkable of events. Jerome Morrow, navigator first class, is about to embark on a one year mission to Titan. For Jerome, selection was almost guaranteed at birth. He’s blessed with all the gifts required for such an undertaking: a genetic quotient second to none. Know there is truly nothing remarkable about the progress of Jerome Morrow, except that I am not Jerome Morrow.” This narration provides great insight into the values of the society, and also confronts and intrigues the viewer through its paradoxical statement. The scene then fades out as classical music begins, further establishing this atmosphere of confusion and suspense. The viewer immediately questions the few details we have learnt from the beginning of the film, as we realize the protagonist is living under a false identity. From the very first scene, the skill of the director is apparent as the movie is immediately compelling and captivating.
Scenes 3 – 5: Flashback to Vincent’s childhood (“I was conceived in the Riviera" to “It was the moment that made everything else possible”, 9:08 to 19:00)
The movie then cuts to a flashback, a common device used throughout Gattaca. Here, the protagonist explains his childhood days, beginning with his conception by natural means. This provides the essential backstory, explaining the protagonist’s paradoxical claim that he is not Jerome Morrow. Shots of the outside world appear optimistic and lush, and the filter on the camera lens makes the world appear golden. This creates a sense of nostalgia. As well as this, the juxtaposition between the clinical Gattaca interior and the evocative outdoor world causes the reader to critique and re-evaluate our initially positive view of the society.
During this flashback, we learn that genetic engineering is the norm in this futuristic society, and that individuals who are not genetically engineered suffer from discrimination. This is clearly seen in the ironic quote “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God's hands, rather than her local geneticist,” usurping traditional religious values. Family values and expectations of love and warmth are also undermined in the hospital scene after his birth. The birth is not a cause of happiness or joy, but is treated like a matter of science and devoid of any affection. Before the parents even see their newborn child, his blood is tested, and doctors read out that he has “Neurological conditions 60% probability, manic depression 42% probability, Attention Deficit disorder 89% probability, Life Expectancy: 30.2 years.” His true name is revealed to be Vincent Anton Freeman. This harsh, sterile treatment of birth encourages us to critique the society and its emphasis on science and genes, at the expense of genuine human connections.
The childhood flashback continues to show how Vincent suffered in a world that favored the genetically superior. When Vincent is denied acceptance into a primary school, there is a close up on the metal gate closing in his face, representing his struggles to fit in to society. There is also a deliberate parallel between Vincent and his genetically engineered brother Anton, “a son my father considered worthy of his name.” It is clear that his parents favor Anton over Vincent, indicated by their dialogue and actions.
During this first flashback, a key scene takes place: the first swimming scene. There are three swimming scenes throughout the film, and all contribute greatly to the plot, as well as having strong symbolic significance. In the first swimming scene, Vincent and Anton have a competition to see who can swim the farthest away from shore before getting scared and turning back. As they leap into the waves, chilling somber classical music sets the serious mood. Aerial shots of the two boys swimming in a large expanse of water indicate the dangerous implications of their game and the destructive nature of their rivalry and quest for superiority. At this stage, it is not surprising that the genetically superior Anton is able to swim farther than Vincent, as the adult Vincent narrator states “Anton was by far the stronger swimmer, and he had no excuse to fail.” This first swimming scene represents society’s view that the genetically engineered are capable of far greater things than those conceived naturally.
The flashback then moves forward in time, as Vincent is now a teenager. This section focuses on his ambition and desire to become an astronaut, despite his genetically inferior standing. Teenage Vincent appears scruffy and disheveled with unruly hair and a tattered grey shirt, a clear juxtaposition to his professional, polished appearance in the opening scene. This foreshadows the great change his character undergoes throughout the course of the film. Vincent’s desire to become an astronaut is expressed through his poetic and emotional quote “Maybe it was the love of the planets, maybe it was just my growing dislike for this one, but for as long as I can remember I had dreamed of going into space.” His father then undermines this optimistic notion when he bluntly tells teenage Vincent “The only way that you’ll see the inside of a spaceship is if you’re cleaning it.” This brutal quote clearly illustrates how Vincent’s drive and passion is overlooked due to his DNA, as he is trapped in a society that won’t allow him to reach his true potential. Despite this, his persistence to keep trying is a testament to the human spirit.
The flashback then progresses to the second swimming scene, where Vincent and Anton are both teenagers. This marks the turning point of the film. This scene begins much like the first swimming scene, with Anton mocking Vincent (“you know you’re gonna lose”), the same classical score and a similar aerial shoot. However, this time, “the impossible happened,” as Vincent was able to beat his brother. Extreme close ups of Anton struggling for breath and Vincent helping his younger brother emphasize the unexpectedness of this feat. Vincent’s voice over perfectly summarizes the implications of this unexpected victory— “it was the one moment in our lives where Anton was not as strong as he believed, and I not as weak. It was the moment that made everything else possible.” The stark contrast between Vincent’s mistreatment as a child and his success in the swimming scene marks a change in his attitude, as he now believes that he has the potential to follow his dreams. This section of the flashback ends with Vincent leaving the house and walking away, representing his journey to achieve the impossible.
Gattaca's opening sequence is powerful and dramatic. Flooded in blue light, the first images we see are of falling debris crashing heavily to the ground, the sound reverberating, creating a ghostly echo. The debris itself is hard to identify - could it be bone, or perhaps plastic? Later on in the sequence it looks as though snow is falling. It's hard to know whether the materials are man-made or natural. Of course we will see how significant the man-made vs the natural will become in this film. Whether we are right in our analysis or not, the opening of the film provokes us to question: what is falling and, ultimately, why? Wherever our imagination takes us in this enigmatic opening, we recognize that we are witnessing 'pieces' falling away, pieces that have perhaps been discarded.
We soon realize as we see the familiar image of a blade across male stubble, that human material is being discarded. It's a startling and provocative image: such a mundane activity—shaving and grooming—is heightened and zoomed in on, making it seem unusual, forensic, obsessive, vital. The first image of our protagonist's face is revealed through bars, which seems to symbolize constriction and entrapment. It suggests that what follows will be in part an investigation into the complexity of man's relationship with his own image. It is then revealed that this man's whole body is being buffed and cleaned, but the presence of the bars does not suggest it to be a mundane activity, rather a necessary hardship.
As the camera zooms out, we see him leaving his vessel, closing the door, the bars of his cage. The blue light which remains within is replaced with fire—fire which will presumably destroy any evidence of his human material. The light change is striking and extreme, from such a cool hue to such heat, and so the intensity of this activity is emphasized from the outset. This is a new form of grooming, and we are about to understand why.
While on the one hand we see human material being shed and destroyed, we next see human material in the form of urine and blood being added to the protagonist's person. It seems clear at this stage that we are engaged in a conversation about identity: this man is discarding and destroying parts of his natural self and replacing them with foreign human materials. The music which plays from the start, Michael Nyman's 'The Morrow' is so named presumably to draw our attention to 'the morrow': the near future. We are witnessing life out of our own time, and here the familiar suddenly seems unusual. As we see the protagonist drive out into the world and the music ends, the introduction to his way of life is complete.
"Welcome to Gattaca": the not too distant future. The film quickly and effectively establishes why the man we are introduced to as Jerome Morrow might have added a prosthetic finger tip: the process of getting into Gattaca requires finger touch ID. And as we see him hoover away material from his keyboard this is further evidence of him trying to erase himself. This self eradication is significant and will become more complex as the film goes on: for now we are confronted with a man who wants to leave no trace of himself behind.
Our attention is quickly be drawn to the structure of Gattaca's office and workers. No one makes a sound, all employees are sat behind semi circular desks in rows. The order and precision of the operation is evident. Perfection is a high priority in this establishment. It is worth pointing out early on the imagery used in this film, imagery that will become more significant as the story develops. The very first image in the film is of a crescent shaped object falling to the ground: we understand now it was most likely a simple fingernail. In a film interested in space, the shapes used must have significance. Many curved shapes appear in the Gattaca workstation: the curved hallways, the curved desks, the curved skylight windows. Curves and semi-circles remind us of the planets, and so of space, but they may also show incompletion—they are, after all, not full circles, but incomplete ones. In relation to this, it is worth pointing out that the doctor, Lamar, who takes Jerome's urine sample, asks him whether he's mentioned his son to him. "No," responds Jerome. "Remind me to, sometime" says Lamar. Although this may not seem significant at this stage, it is important to note that the film sets up with this small interaction something incomplete: the story about Lamar's son. And the images at this stage support that: semi circles are present in abundance—we are at the beginning and certainly haven't reached a resolution. The semi circles and this story, as well as the one about Lamar's son, is incomplete.
Straight lines are also present: the queues the Gattaca employees form, the lines of their desks, the escalators and the rockets shooting straight up into the air. The energy of the straight line—of shooting through—is important. We have not yet heard mention of 'the borrowed ladder,' but these strong straight lines represent movement and direction; the sort of movement that can break through barriers, that can propel a man on to a higher rung of the ladder.
The flashbacks have a sepia, nostalgic quality to them and the musical number that accompanies this first one is entitled 'In God's Hands'. We take a moment to go back in time to Jerome's conception, when he was called Vincent. As we do, religious symbols flood the screen: this natural conception is paralleled with God and religion. In early life, Vincent's genetic identity means that he is barred entry to many places, as we see at the school gates; the gates are shut on him, his hand holding on to one of the bars as it does so. "The insurance won't cover it" says the schoolteacher. We see here discrimination in action: a young boy who is not allowed to prove his worth, but whose worth has been decided for him at the start of his life by a sheet of statistics. As Vincent's parents plan for their next child they decide to do so in the 'natural' way: genetic design and manipulation. We see here how, in this near future, definitions are skewed: natural has come to mean manipulated or controlled by science—what could be more natural than that? In this sequence we see an early example of Vincent erasing himself, after his younger brother Anton measures taller than him. The measurements are recorded on a wooden pole and the lines drawn into it make the records look like the rungs of a ladder. Vincent erases his own mark from it, as he will do in later life. It is important, though, to note the potential double meaning of this erasing. Refusing to be placed second on this scale, he at once rejects his projected potential, thus opening up the possibility of exceeding it, while also demonstrating an act of self-loathing. Perhaps the self hatred is part of the thing that propels him: a desire to be someone else.
It is significant that Anton and Vincent play chicken: a game where they have to prove who is the best swimmer. When we meet the real Jerome Morrow later on, we learn he was a championship swimmer. The film is interested in rating its characters on the same scale. As a youngster, Anton is a stronger swimmer than Vincent, and though we haven't met him yet, we assume that Jerome would have been an even stronger swimmer than Anton. It is interesting and significant that this hierarchy of swimmers doesn't determine the boys' destiny as they grow up and become men: after all, by the end, Vincent ends up outdoing the other two.