Monday, October 10, 2011

Bio-Art: Gattaca (1997).

Ah, the future. What wonderful possibilities tomorrow holds! Genetic diseases are all but obsolete. Trips to far-off moons happen every day. Science has made breeding a thing of the past. Now your job is determined by your genetics, and -

Wait a tick. Something sounds wrong about that.


In the Gattaca universe, natural birth, while not unheard of, is a rare occurrence. Now, most babies are conceived by in-vitro - the new 'natural' way. Natural babies are considered chronically ill, and are called "in-valids," "uteros," or "faith-births." People born in-vitro are called "valid" and are destined for cushy jobs from birth.

A typical party for those with "normal" genetics.

Vincent, the protagonist of our story, is an in-valid. He showed predispositions for manic depression, ADD, and almost certain heart defects from the moment he was taken out of the womb. Even a small cut was considered worrisome. Insurance would not cover flesh wounds. After hearing how much crap his child would have to go through, Vincent's father made sure that the baby would not have his name.

His brother, however, had every single disease weeded out, from fatal heart dysfunctions to addictive tendencies, baldness, and obesity. Anton, named after his father, even grows faster than Vincent. It is clear that his parents love him more than their conceived son - and Vincent knows it, even as a child. His parents do not even let him sit at the same dinner table as his perfect brother.

Things get worse when Vincent tries to get a job as an astronaut. In this future, a good resume is not enough; one must have the genetics to back it up. The movie describes people with inferior genetics as "a new underclass." Just what the elite want! Even with his inferior genetics, Vincent gets a job at Gattaca, one of the premier facilities for space launches. The only problem is that he's cleaning their floors and toilets instead of going up in a spaceship.

Through some shady dealings, Vincent manages to procure the bodily fluids - blood, urine, the whole shabang - of a genetically-perfect man named Jerome. The only reason this guy is not working is that there is no gene for luck or fate. Genetics won't prevent random back accidents. Such an opportunity is exactly what Vincent needs to get into space.

Most of Jerome's bags are filled with vodka. So much for eliminating addiction.

People who pose as healthy individuals like Vincent/Jerome have a stigma attached to them as well. They are called "borrowed ladders" and "de-gene-rates" - emphasis on the "gene" in that last one. Luckily for Vincent, few suspect him...

...except when the mission director to Titan dies. The investigation makes Gattaca a death trap for invalids as people investigate the bloody murder. One bad eyelash is all it takes to get the inspectors on Jerome/Vincent's case. This sends the whole facility into a flurry of rapid genetic tests - all of which Jerome/Vincent manages to dodge. In the end, Jerome/Vincent is proven innocent, and gets to go up into space like he always wanted.

His actual printout was at least 20 pages long.

There are a number of clever little things about Gattaca. For starters, the title is made entirely of letters potentially found in DNA: G, A, T, C, from the nitrogen bases Guanine, Adenine, Thymine,  and Cytosine. These letters are also highlighted in the credits. There are also a few other biological in-jokes, such as a "borrowed ladder" referring to a faked DNA helix. It just goes to show how a society like that would incorporate biological terms into its vocabulary. "Cloning," "GMO," and "splicing" are some real-life examples of science affecting the general wordbank.

The movie's main point, however, is that gene discrimination is an inevitable side-effect of genetic research. The director of Gattaca coined the term "genism" - the theory that all human capacities are determined by genes. The future in Gattaca presents "discrimination down to a science." Creepy.

There are also some situations in which eradicating diseases via genetics just won't work. Often, bad traits are in a population for a reason. Wikipedia uses sickle cell anemia as an example; although crippling when someone has two alleles for the disease, the heterozygous form (Hh) prevents malaria. While not all genetic disorders are good, SCA does show how messy things can get. The sooner eugenics becomes standard, the sooner the human race gets wiped out.

If you're looking for a good sci-fi movie that will make you think, watch Gattaca one weekend. It's not a flashy movie, and some of the acting is off, You'll get a tiny bit depressed, but also feel a nice little glimmer of hope that Orwellian conspiracies never give. As molecular biologist Lee M. Silver said, "Gattaca is a film that all geneticists should see if for no other reason than to understand the perception of our trade held by so many of the public-at-large."

No comments:

Post a Comment