How 'Gattaca' Predicted the Future of Genetic Engineering

15 Mar 2022 BY Steven Ryder in Into Film+

5 mins

As part of our new additions to our curated streaming service Into Film+, Gattaca's starting point of society's anxiety surrounding genetic engineering takes us on a thrilling and informative ride into a fascinating dystopian future.

In the year 1997, when the science-fiction film Gattaca was released, there was more than a murmur from audiences that the film may not be a fiction much longer. Two major developments in the world of genetic engineering during the 1990s were being discussed in the news, amongst the general public and certainly in schools to a greater degree than ever before; the first genetically engineered tomato hit supermarket shelves in the United Kingdom and Dolly the sheep became the first mammal ever to be cloned from an adult cell, marking a moment when genetics had seemingly stepped into a new realm of possibilities. The average person, however, seemed unsure of a future that these new possibilities could potentially lead to. As well as these developments becoming hot talking points, the public was also concerned with how genetic engineering could apply to humans - did the next steps include further manipulation of human DNA as well? In this respect, Gattaca came along at a perfect time.

Set in a future where unborn children can have their genes altered (at the right price) to ensure a life without any defects, society is divided into two categories; the Valids, those born genetically perfect, and In-Valids, children born naturally who are at risk of disease and imperfection. The focus of the film settles on Vincent, an In-Valid who has dreams of joining the Gattaca space programme but is refused entry based on his genetic makeup. Determined to circumvent a system he believes to be unfair, Vincent assumes the identity of another man, a genetically superior, but recently injured swimmer, to access the space programme. However, he soon finds his plan falling apart after a mysterious murder occurs at the training centre.

Gattaca is a gripping and highly accessible film that straddles genres and smartly builds a visually unique future world, one in which society has become sterile and predictable due to genetic engineering essentially predicting and controlling the lives of every person within it. This world is what we could call a "dystopian future". In opposition to a "utopian future", a dystopia is when technological and scientific advancement has had a dehumanising and unpleasant effect on society. A concept which arrived in cinema as early as Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' in 1927 and permeates the popular 2021 sci-fi 'Dune', storytellers and filmmakers return time and time again to dystopian fiction as a reflection and cautionary tale in relation to the present. Dystopian fiction has also been present in the school curriculum for a long time, with George Orwell's '1984' and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' providing a platform for young people to explore their fears of the future. One of the most popular young adult novels and film franchises of recent years, 'The Hunger Games', also jumped headfirst into dystopic fantasy and introduced a generation of teenagers to the concept.

It is the main character of Vincent who young people may find themselves empathising with the most, despite his often-emotionless resolve. He sees his younger brother, who his parents decided to genetically modify after all the barriers facing their first child, achieve all the things he could not, leaving him asking the question whether this predetermination of a person's potential is absolute. As the film progresses and the walls begin to close in on Vincent's deception, we also bear witness to the various ways in which science helps us track and control individuals based on their genetic makeup; technology such as this has been used to apprehend criminals or detect health defects before they end in tragedy but Gattaca seems to have a trepidation towards how this technology could become too omnipotent for its own good.

In 1997, the filmmakers of Gattaca wanted to showcase that the world was on an ethical precipice of scientific progression and now, in 2022, genetic science has made further breakthroughs that leave the future even more shadowy. One only has to only look as far as genetic ancestry testing kits now being readily available for home-use to see how universal genetic testing has become. However, whilst teaching us about the marvels and wonders of science, Gattaca also takes a philosophical stance on this subject and is the perfect stimulus for a conversation about ethics in the scientific field. Whilst certain advances in science should be celebrated, Gattaca proposes the idea that it is how we utilise our biological and chemical breakthroughs that matters more than the breakthroughs themselves.

Gattaca is now available to stream on Into Film+.


Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

This Article is part of: Into Film+

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