A glimpse of the future?

4.1 The film ‘GATTACA’ was released in 1997.[1] It portrays life in a ‘not-so-distant future’ in which genetic engineering permits parents to screen embryos before implantation for the purpose of reproduction—avoiding those that are genetically imperfect and selecting those that offer a genetic guarantee of health, stamina and physical attractiveness. One reviewer described the film in the following terms:

The main focus of Gattaca is the struggle of a genetically inferior man, Vincent Freeman, to survive and prosper in a world where his kind is routinely discriminated against.

Shortly after they were married, Vincent’s parents decided to start a family the old-fashioned way, without any help from doctors and test tubes. The result was a boy who was diagnosed as 99% likely to have a serious heart defect. That rendered Vincent ineligible for all but the most menial of jobs. But his dream was to one day work at The Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and participate in the first-ever manned flight to the moons of Saturn. For most ‘in-valids’, this would have remained a fantasy, but Vincent possessed the determination and drive to make it real.

With the help of a shady middle-man, Vincent locates Jerome Morrow, a genetically superior individual who was paralysed as the result of an accident. He agrees to sell Vincent his identity (including blood and urine on demand, fingerprints, hair and other body debris, etc). So, equipped with Jerome’s genetic resume, which guarantees him work anywhere, Vincent applies for a position at Gattaca. He is accepted and quickly proves his worth to everyone. But, a week before he is to attain his lifelong ambition of making a space flight, he becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and his carefully-guarded secret is in danger of being exposed.[2]

4.2 With the indulgence of a sympathetic medical officer who chooses not to disclose Vincent’s deception, Vincent transcends his ‘genetic prophecy’. Despite a life expectancy of only 33 years and ‘already 10,000 [heart] beats overdue’, in the final scene Vincent is launched into the night sky on his mission into space.

4.3 GATTACA identifies many themes that are central to the present Inquiry: the prospect that genetic science may in time enable a person’s genetic destiny to be mapped out at birth, with all their flaws, predispositions and susceptibilities; the prospect that those with better genetic profiles may be favoured over those with weaker profiles, creating a class of ‘healthy-ill’ or ‘worried-well’; and the prospect that those who are genetically disadvantaged may defy scientific predictions and succeed beyond expectations, while those who are genetically advantaged may not fulfil their potential—because, as Vincent Freeman states, ‘there is no gene for fate’.

[1] A Niccol, GATTACA (1997), Columbia Pictures.

[2] J Berardinelli, Gattaca, <www.movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/g/gattaca.html>, 16 February 2003.