(Warning: contains plot spoliers!) Produced more that a decade ago, GATTACA remains one of the most thought-provoking cinematic visions of a world where current breakthroughs in genetics have been taken to one possible extreme. The premise of the film is neatly summarised in the trailer (which is included as an extra feature on the DVD):
“Genetics – what can it mean? The ability to perfect the physical and mental characteristics of every unborn child. In the not too distant future, our DNA will determine everything about us. A minute drop of blood, saliva or a single hair determines where you can work, who you should marry, what you are capable of achieving. In a society where success is determined by science, divided by the standards of perfection, one man’s only chance is to hide his own identity by borrowing someone else’s.”
From a young age, Vincent, the central character of the story (played by Ethan Hawke), has longed to be an astronaut. Unfortunately for Vincent, however, he was conceived by his parents in the traditional manner and has inherited with their genes significant risk factors for a number of diseases, notably a 99% risk of heart disease. In a society where most children are conceived in vitro and screened for inheritable diseases, physical characteristics and other ‘potentially prejudicial conditions’, Vincent has no chance of passing the selection process to enter the GATTACA academy and fulfil his dream to go into space; he is ‘a utero, a faith-birth, an In-valid’. As he bemoans in the voiceover “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands rather than those of her local geneticist” (9:04), adding later “It didn’t matter how much I lied on my resume, my real resume was in my cells. Why should anybody invest all that money to train me, when there are a thousand applicants with a far cleaner profile?” (15:12).
Unwilling to accept the fate determined by his genes, Vincent resorts to extreme measures. Via a secretive middle-man he is put in touch with Jerome (Jude Law), who was genetically selected by his parents and, as such, is ‘a Valid, a vitro, a made-man’. Jerome may have the genetic credentials to succeed, but he has been involved on a car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. He is willing to sell his genetic identity to Vincent; “You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix tucked under your arm” enthuses the agent (23:35). So it is that Vincent becomes ‘a borrowed ladder, a de-gene-rate’ – somebody who pays for blood and urine, skin cells and hair from a Valid in order to cheat the ID tests and routine screening at the workplace and masquerade as a different genetic persona.
GATTACA offers huge potential for teaching. The whole film could be shown to students, but most of the interesting science and bioethics really occurs in the first half hour. The best single clip for conveying the main issues involves Vincent’s parents going to the genetic service to order their second child (10:35 to 12:37, starting “Like most parents…”), although you may elect to start viewing from 9:04 and include Vincent’s discussion of his own birth.
The consultation at the clinic hints at the science that has been employed, but also raises nicely some of the issues concerning whether or not this would be a good development. The parents seem willing to have diseases screened out, even to specify the gender, eye colour, hair and skin tone of their new child but wonder aloud whether it might be good to leave a few things to chance. At this point they are put firmly in their place by the genetic counsellor, “you want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfections built in already, yout child doesn’t need any additional burdens” (11:55).
A second clip that may be worth including runs from 15:12 to 16:01, the section where Vincent discusses his genetic ‘resume’ and then goes on to highlight how, despite genetic discrimination being illegal, all sorts of secret testing could be undertaken if you refused to take an official screening.
What are some of the issues raised by the film? One important one, of course, is whether the science might ever deliver a society of this kind. This question has become increasingly important in the time since the film was made as a succession of real-life cases of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) have moved the boundary concerning legally-permitted uses of PGD.
In reality, the particular technology used in the film could provide genetic selection, but not genetic enhancement. With conception still involving fertilisation of the mother’s eggs using the father’s sperm you can only choose from the range of genetic options that are represented within the genomes of the two parents. To its credit, the film does actually make this point when the genetic counsellor explains “Keep in mind this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result” (11:58).
The technological limitations of the methods used in the film in no way invalidates discussion of the possible ethical consequences of this kind of screening, not least because other genetic breakthroughs may allow broader and more overt selection than is currently possible.
The issue of discrimination based upon the results of genetic testing is already a genuine concern. In the UK, there is currently a voluntary moratorium on the use of gene test information by insurance companies, but this is due to be reviewed in 2011 and worries have been expressed by, for example, the cancer charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer and by the GeneWatch organisation that the current ban will not be secured. The depicition in the film of a kindergarten unwilling to take young Vincent as a pupil because the insurance won’t cover him is not necessarily far-fetched.
Being able to eradicate certain inherited diseases is clearly an appealing proposition; the key question, however, concerns the cost to individuals and to society that may be required to achieve such a goal. It is also illuminating to consider the case of Jerome who, of course, had the right genes but his interaction with the environment (in this case, collision with a car) has rendered him unacceptable to a perfection-orientated society. It reminds us that despite even the most strident models of genetic determinism, our genes alone will never be enough to entirely define who we are as people.
GATTACA is repeated regularly on satellite movie channels. It was shown on Channel 4 on September 4th 2005 (TRILT identifier: 001B88FE), and is available as an off-air recording from the BUFVC.