What if you could ensure that your child had no chance of developing life-threatening illness? Would you want to make that happen? What about choosing your offspring's sex, eye color, height and skin tone? This is in no way a simple question. The study of genetics has not slowed down since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Once scientists had mapped out the entirety of human DNA, they have been relentlessly researching and developing ways to improve and modify the building blocks of mankind. Recently, they pushed the morality of genetic engineering to its boiling point.
In March 2015, Chinese scientists succeeded in genetically modifying human DNA. A process called CRISPR/Cas9 was applied to non-viable human embryos and 28 out of 54 were successfully modified. This has caused quite a heated debate among the scientific community regarding the morality of these procedures. Nature quoted George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard, in reaction to the Chinese and their work:
"I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale"
While I find this scientific revelation intriguing and extraordinary, it's a story I've heard before. Back in 1997, with the Human Genome Project in full swing, a sci-fi thriller was released that was ahead of its time. This film remains on my top ten list because of its heavy, thought-provoking themes and its intelligent use of production design. Sci-fi movies have always been able to get us thinking. What our world would be like if the science behind them was possible is always in the back of our minds. Films like Daybreakers and the Jurassic Park series are a few examples of films that tend to spark debate as to whether or not the science, if possible, should ever be implemented in our society. Gattaca does a wonderful job of showing us the benefits and weaknesses of such complicated tech, and perfectly explains what effects genetic engineering could have on our society.
Gattaca: Class Warfare At Its Most Terrifying
There is already a divide between the privileged and the unfortunate in this world. Wealth and success is the hallmark of the upper class. The more the middle and lower classes try to catch up, the harder it becomes. In Gattaca, this principle is taken to extremes.
The film is set in the 'not-too-distant' future where your genetic makeup determines your place in society. The vast majority of children born in this time are genetically engineered by geneticists, able to do whatever they wish with their lives. The black sheep of the world, so-called faith births, are destined to live their lives forever a victim of the system.
Vincent Freeman, the film's protagonist, is a faith birth that dreams of going to space. A simple blood test is the only interview process necessary. As an "in-valid", this test will define him as unworthy of anything more that janitorial work. Destined to live at the bottom from birth, Vincent is able to work at Gattaca, similar to NASA, but will always be viewing the universe through the windows he cleans. He says it best himself:
"We now have discrimination down to a science."
Determined to shed his in-valid skin and become worthy of exploring space, Vincent decides to refuse the destiny society has chosen for him and infiltrate the ranks of Gattaca. But it won't be easy.
Denying Your Destiny: The Borrowed Ladder
There is always a way to hack the system. People are crafty by nature. You don't need enhanced genetics to possess determination and resolve. Vincent discovers his way into the job of his dreams. In addition to a huge price tag, this chance at a new life will also cost him his identity.
Through highly secretive and illegal channels, Vincent is given the gift of Jerome Morrow. A picture of perfection, Jerome was a 'valid' citizen with a remarkable resume. Paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a car accident in another country, he has no way to continue his life as it was. With no existing record of his injuries at home, Jerome is able to lend his identity to Vincent in exchange for financial stability.
This type of fraud is highly frowned upon and will warrant swift arrest of both persons if uncovered. They call the ones that pay the price for perfection "borrowed ladders" or "de-gene-erates". The lengths these individuals go through to attain success are remarkable. Using Jerome as a DNA factory, Vincent must trim his hair, scrub his entire body, and cut his fingernails every single morning to erase as much of his substandard self as possible. He obtains Jerome's urine, blood, hair and skin cells to pass himself off as the 'valid' he needs to be to succeed. Stripped of everything that was Vincent, he is able to assimilate and become Gattaca's golden boy. However, all good things must come to an end. I will not spoil the ending for those that haven't seen this amazing film.
Will Genetic Engineering Replace Natural Conception?
Gattaca brought a real life debate to the screen that hadn't even happened yet. Back in 1997, we weren't anywhere near the possibility of engineering babies. Clearly, that has changed. The themes of the film are ones that stuck with me in the passing years, and now more than ever. With the recent progression of genetic engineering, it's captivating and terrifying to think that possibly in our lifetime, babies could be designed and perfected in a lab.
Most scientific sources will stress that while these advancements are happening, that does not mean our world will become Gattaca. However, the science will be able to prevent many serious illnesses that would normally lessen the person's life span. The critics are posing the question as to whether or not we should go down that road. Just because we can doesn't always mean it's the right thing to do. Regardless, I am completely amazed by Gattaca and the message it carried. Every time I watch it, I'm stuck in deep thought for hours after. With much to say about discrimination, social structure, scientific advancement and life in general, if you haven't seen Gattaca, you should. It's not one to pass over, I promise you.
Have you seen any older movies that are eerily paralleled to our lives today? Tell me about them in the comments! Follow me here for more posts about movies that tackle big issues and, as always, keep watching movies!