Die Mannequin, early demo of "Candide"

Andrew Niccol, 1997

On to the movie that bravely takes on one of the great injustices of our time: the fact that people with heart conditions aren't allowed to be astronauts.

Human conception is generally the product of one of the 100 million sperm in a typical ejaculation reaching one of the 400,000 eggs a woman could potentially release during her lifetime. That's a whole lot of combinations. Could get Molly, could get Krieg. Gattaca presents a world in which widespread embryo screening has allowed parents some measure of choice in the children they bear. No genetic engineering is involved — it's merely a matter of selection. You could have wound up with that phenomenally healthy, brilliant, beautiful Olympic athlete on your first try, if that's the way the chromosomes had happened to line up. But it's pretty unlikely, and when the parents in Gattaca have their first child without a preimplantation genetic evaluation, they wind up with a kid whose postnatal report indicates myopia, ADD, and a heart defect that'll kill him at thirty. Thwarted in his attempts to gain a spot on a space mission, he grumbles in a voiceover that "it didn't matter how much I lied on my résumé — my real résumé was in my cells. Why should anybody invest all that money to train me when there are a thousand other applicants with a far cleaner profile?" This strikes me as actually a pretty reasonable question. Especially given that the answer essentially turns out to be little more than "because I'm the star of the movie, dammit!"

I remember my grandmother grumbling about the prospect of my family moving to California because visits would now have to involve air travel — a dangerous prospect. My mother pointed out that the chance of being in a plane crash was one in a million. "But what if you're that one?" my grandmother countered. That is pretty much the level on which Gattaca operates. It is a feature-length argument that the space program shouldn't discriminate against a guy with a genetic kink that only one person in a hundred survives, because what if he's that one? Of course, the same argument could apply whether the odds were one in a hundred, one in a thousand, or one in seven billion. To its proponents, that simply serves to underscore the point: the odds don't matter. The problem is that actually they do.

Unlikely events are only unlikely relative to the number of trials. Use a different standard, such as "there exists one successful outcome," and suddenly "overcoming the odds" becomes easy. While probabilistic miracles do happen with regularity, before you can proclaim that there is therefore magic everywhere in this bitch you have to weigh them against all the things that aren't miracles. For instance, say that there exists a DNA sequence that, 99% of the time, means an early death sentence. Say you want to make a movie about someone with this condition who defies the naysayers. If there are even 69 people in the entire world with this condition, the odds are better than 50/50 that you can make your movie. But if you're honest, you should also make 99 equally long movies about a guy who commits gross fraud in order to make it into the space program and then, a year before his inaugural flight, keels over at his desk.

What's even worse is that Gattaca doesn't treat its protagonist's success as a matter of luck, but rather as a triumph of the Human Spirit™. So, y'know, when you're diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and your doctor gives you one chance in a hundred of lasting to the end of the year, if you do then proceed to succumb to your illness before the year is out, it's your own fault. You were insufficiently spirited! Ultimately, this movie falls neatly into a category that has cropped up often enough in these articles that I find myself forced to make an evaluative pattern for it:

36 Many authors have attempted to demonstrate the boundlessness of human potential by writing stories in which human potential is boundless. For instance, Richard Bach's Illusions argued that you could fly around like Superman if only you could, like, free your mind or something. It proved its point by telling the story of a guy who freed his mind and thereby gained the ability to fly around like Superman. Same deal with Stranger in a Strange Land. The problem is that fictional examples don't prove anything. You don't actually prove the existence of time travel by writing "I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while at a bus stop near a tree."

And you don't prove that inborn disadvantages can be overcome with sufficient determination by having a fictional man win a fictional swimming contest with his fictional brother. Which raises the question: why would you want to?

The answer, I think, is simply that people tend to believe what they need to believe to live with themselves. Put aside the window dressing about genetics for a moment. The message of Gattaca is that (a) any disadvantage can be overcome and (b) overcoming your disadvantages is a matter not of luck but of character. To those who would lose in a fairer division of wealth and power, that's a very attractive message: it means that there's no need to remedy social inequities, because people get what they deserve. "What? You say the reason your life sucks is that you grew up in poverty and had only a tiny fraction of the opportunities an affluent kid would have? Well Vince here grew up in the same neighborhood, and now he's got a nice house and drives an Acura! You just lack his Human Spirit!" The fun part comes when this conviction inevitably conflicts with reality. Take our ongoing economic slump. Yes, some people are finding jobs. But for every new hire there are many applicants turned down — hundreds, in some sectors of the economy (education springs to mind). The Gattaca creed insists that chance can't be to blame for the applicants' inability to find work, nor insurmountable disadvantages... and that means it must be their fault. The result has been a parade of Republicans lashing out at the unemployed. If they'd written this movie the swimming contest would have ended with the protagonist screaming at his drowning brother to shut up about the lack of air and just breathe.

Of course, once you do throw genetics back into the mix this line of argument starts to look dangerous. The Glenn Becks and Jonah Goldbergs of the world delight in reminding us that the Progressives of the early 20th century believed in improving society not only through more equitable economic policies but also biologically, through eugenics. And you know who else believed in eugenics? NAZIS!! The very word "eugenics" conjures up visions of death panels sending the unfit off to extermination camps, or at the very least, "birth panels" of scientists and bureaucrats deciding who can and can't have children. To its credit, Gattaca avoids the easy dystopian route and offers up a eugenics program that seems innocuous, even attractive. As the geneticist in the movie puts it, all he's doing is making sure that the children of the next generation have "no critical dispositions to any of the major inheritable diseases" and are free from "any potentially prejudicial conditions: premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive susceptibility, propensity to violence, obesity, etc." That's a tougher target.

The objection I might level is that this technology makes biology largely a reflection of culture, and most human cultures are seriously fucked up. For instance, I'd bet that most cultures throughout history would have been more inclined to select for "propensity to violence" than against it. On a not unrelated note, take the geneticist's opening gambit: "First, we may as well decide on gender." Even without this technology, China and India are already headed for demographic disaster, with only 84 girls born for every 100 boys; imagine what that number would look like if we had to depend on parents actually choosing daughters rather than merely refraining from killing them. All in all, though, this is more of a devil's-advocate argument than something that would put me in the anti-screening camp. It still seems to me entirely possible that the benefits would outweigh the dangers. And Gattaca doesn't make this argument anyway.

Gattaca's case against eugenics doesn't really try to engage with the policy debate on the subject at all. It's pitched at a much more primal level. First of all, it plays on the fear that, in the world it presents, none of us would qualify to take a place in the master race. I certainly wouldn't: as soon as the screeners ran the projections and saw the glasses and braces and randomly imploding kidneys and whatnot, I would have been zygote non grata. You'd never have been born!, the movie warns. And if you had been, you'd be a fuckin' janitor! (Apparently Niccol didn't figure that his movie would be playing to too many actual janitors.) Even that, though, isn't where the movie strikes the deepest. Mike D'Angelo's review from 1997 complains that Gattaca should have dispensed with the tedious backstory: "Just plunge us into the middle of the narrative and hit the throttle." But if you ask me, the key scene in the movie is the one I've been talking about the most, the one in which the parents go to the fertility lab and order up their second child. "We would want Vincent to have a brother, you know, to play with," the mother says, as two-year-old Vincent glances up from his toy looking like he has Down Syndrome. Because that's what we're really talking about, right?

Again, even if you know who the other parent will be, there are an astronomical number of possible children the two of you could have. You might have some vague preferences — in my case, health would of course be one, intelligence another, and as I've discussed, I'd like at least one of my children to be a girl — but you're not locked into any specific human being. Then the child is born, and you are. Instantly, I am told, the idea of trading in your actual existing child for some hypothetical sibling with better D&D stats becomes monstrous... even though if you'd gotten that kid, the idea of trading for the one in front of you would have seemed equally monstrous. Vanishingly few parents, presented with the Gattaca apparatus, would explicitly order up a child with Down Syndrome, or profound autism, or early-onset incurable cancer. But when that's what they get, many of them say that they wouldn't change a thing. So that's half of Gattaca's case against eugenics. They want to take your kids away!

The other half is announced in the opening frame in the form of a text block against a solemn black background: "Consider God's handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?" That's from the book of Ecclesiastes, a curious choice in that it's an artifact of a world so static that it can open with a declaration that "there is nothing new under the sun." Gattaca, by contrast, is all about the brave new world in which we actually live, where change is a constant and we define ourselves politically by how we deal with the shock of the new. Think of it like the standard of proof used in criminal trials versus civil ones. Conservatives, by definition, seek to cling to tradition, and therefore insist that before adopting new ways we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they'd be an unqualified good. Progressives use a bar that's a lot easier to clear, putting the old and the new on an equal footing and choosing based on the preponderance of the evidence. I fall into the latter camp, and so to me it seems that once embryo screening becomes feasible, the decision to maintain the status quo must be justified every bit as much as the decision to let the technology go forward. In short, doing nothing is also a decision. And that goes both for social policy and for individuals. Once preimplantation evaluation becomes as widespread as it is in Gattaca, declining to screen isn't a way to avoid making a decision about the characteristics of your children, but constitutes an affirmative decision of its own. You're effectively walking into the lab and selecting "random, random, random."

Except Gattaca disputes that. It basically rejects everything I've said above about the interplay between biology and combinatrics. In my account, unscreened conception is the product of two random assortments of the parents' chromosomes linking up. The film strongly suggests that, on the contrary, these are the selections made by the great geneticist in the sky. From the narrator's account of his own birth, complete with close-up of a crucifix gripped in his mother's fist as she bears him, to his voice-over lamentations about the discrimination he faces as a "faith birth", to the love interest's gasp of "You're a God child?" when she learns his secret, Gattaca places itself squarely in that sci-fi tradition that asserts that what's really dystopian about the future it presents is the persecution of those who stick with that old-time religion. And about a quarter of Americans say we're living in that godless nightmare right now, and are mobilizing to turn the tide. Out in Nevada, for instance, the Republicans have nominated for Senate one Sharron Angle, who has raised some eyebrows by insisting that a 13-year-old girl who's been raped and impregnated by her father should be forced to carry the fetus to term. Why? "I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives."

That may well turn out to be a winning message for her. I don't live in Nevada, and even if I did, she wouldn't have to worry about alienating me because I was never going to vote for Sharron Angle anyway. But where Gattaca is concerned, I should be the ideal audience: sort of leaning in favor of the screening it warns against, but with enough reservations that I could be swayed. But if you hope to sway me, don't say "God's planned the world we live in." Because my automatic response is that there is no God, there is no plan, and if that's the basis of your argument, then we can't even have a conversation.

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