Oh, I’m on to you… Gattaca.
The first time I watched Gattaca I was sixteen sitting in my junior year Biology class. I remember how much it had impacted me back then: the image of genetic engineering as a dangerous weapon with the potential to transform society into a cold world of gene discrimination seemed to be branded into my mind, and yet when I watched it again this week, three years later, I finally think I picked up on how I should actually feel… manipulated. Gattaca is just filled with stylistic tricks and tools to leave its audience with the most negative possible view on genetic engineering without even needing to really discuss why genetic engineering itself is so terrible.
The most obvious trick, and yet one I had never thought to question upon my first viewing, is the implicit link between genetic engineering and totalitarianism. Throughout the entire film the audience is flooded with images and hints of fascism. From the simplistic, striped down style of the architecture, to the scene where the ‘genetically inferior’ people are being held up against walls for invasive questioning, to the gestapo like outfits of the police officers, and even to the mostly silent and oppressive soundtrack of the film. The implication is in almost every aspect of the movie, and yet it is never clearly stated exactly what government this futuristic society has. So why would these film makers go to all the trouble of making implications but never confirming them? Perhaps it is because so long as the totalitarianism is only implied and not stated, there is no need to explain why genetic engineering would be linked to it, and more importantly, there is less chance of the audience questioning or even consciously picking up on this link. Instead the audience member is only left with the almost subconscious feeling that genetic engineering will somehow lead us away from freedom and into oppression. Personally, I think it seems like a bit of a stretch to assume that the genetic modification of offspring to fix health problems and possible disabilities will somehow make everyone throw away their beloved freedom and democracy and start welcoming in fascism with open arms.
Following the totalitarian theme, the film also tries to show that these great developments in science and an acceptance of genetic engineering will endanger the privacy of our very DNA. For some reason in this futuristic world everyone’s DNA has suddenly moved from private property that only individual permission and warrants can access, to a free for all on information about every individual’s genetic information. Again, I find it hard to believe that just because we developed the means to learn everything from an individual’s DNA, suddenly means that we also stop respecting that individual’s right to privacy. In fact, all of the issues in the protagonist’s life arise because anyone is able to take his DNA and discriminate against him because of it. The film quickly informs us that this practice is illegal, but everyone does it anyway. Yet, how difficult would it really be to crack down on a practice like that? Any minor investigation into GATTACA would reveal that they were discriminating, and punishments such as fines and arrests could easily sway the company to stop. It seems that people in this society can also take any DNA off the street and have it sequenced for them seconds later without so much as a questioning glance. This practice is not even said to be illegal. I simply do not see any connection between genetic modification and flagrant violations of personal privacy.
The film does do an excellent job of bringing up the question of where the line should be drawn in genetic engineering and will we know when we cross it. However, I feel that the assumption it makes that genetic engineering will lead to a terrible loss of freedom and privacy are ungrounded and poorly supported, manipulating the audience into an overly negative view.