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Consider God’s Handiwork

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“Consider God’s handiwork: who can straighten what he hath made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Such is the opening quote and the thesis of director Andrew Nichol’s film Gattaca (1997). Although the film is based on the lives of genetically engineered human beings and the effects that such have on the “invalids”, that is those who are “God-children”, it deeply criticises the values of a society of “valids” through its satirical tone and the use of film noir techniques. Gattaca not only supports the belief that nature, despite its flaws, is preferable to a supposed error-free genetically engineered existence, but it also advocates that nobody should “tamper with” what “[God] has made crooked.” Through the medium of the film, director Nichols attempts to encourage viewers that humanism can defeat genetics and that science has simply gone too far.

Throughout the film, Gattaca tackles the debate over the influence of nature versus nurture, and ultimately finds nurture in the form of humanism, to be by far more successful than a genetically “perfect” birth. This is symbolised in the game of chicken played by Vincent and Anton, both as children and as adults. Although their mother Marie knows that Vincent “will do something” someday, genetics tries its hardest to prove her wrong. This is evident when, at the beginning of the film, Anton, the “valid” child, continuously wins the game as he is stronger and “has no excuse to fail.”

The paradigm shifts when Vincent wins for the first time, proving that the human spirit can overcome genetic imperfection and can emerge victoriously over a supposed high “genetic quotient.” Such an idea is proven even further during the course of the film, particularly during the scene where Vincent must cross the road without his contact lenses, in order to meet Irene on the other side. The other side of the road can be interpreted as the “valid” world, and it is through sheer faith that Vincent is able to cross, disabled, and to make it safely to the opposite side. This element of faith underpins the thesis of the film, as it demonstrates the real motivations behind the characters and how success is still in the hands of God.

One of the paramount messages of Gattaca involves the idea that “validity” in the eyes of humans in the film is not truly as error-free as it may seem. Take, for example, Director Josef, a “valid” member of society with “not a violent bone in [his] body.” The brutal murder of a colleague for the sake of a project is not what one would expect from a seemingly perfect, genetically engineered human being. It is in this that Nichols displays for viewers how “validity” in terms of a “genetic quotient” is independent of validity as a human being. Nichols encourages us to consider the disadvantages of having such a motivated, success-driven elite class, through Director Josef’s “invalidity” as a human being, which is demonstrated through his murderous streak.

The same message can also be applied to Eugene’s case, in the juxtaposition of his genetic “validity” and his disabled body. No matter how impressive Eugene’s “genetic quotient” is, he will never be accepted in the valid world, due to his confinement to a wheelchair and his cynical attitude towards the life that he tragically ends. Niccol proves, through the fact that Vincent, the “invalid”, has to pose as Jerome for Eugene’s “genetic quotient” to be of any use, that one must actually be a seemingly “invalid” “God-child”. This implies that one must humanise to escape the error and “invalidity” of the genetically engineered world.

Vincent, the true protagonist of the film, epitomises the fact that success is relative to one’s faith, and proves that being a “God-child” in fact enhances one’s ability to achieve. Take the twelve-fingered pianist as another example; a man who would not be successful if he was an ordinary pianist who played like all the other “valids”. Vincent claims in a voice-over that “for the genetically superior, success is easier to attain but by no means guaranteed” and also that “there is no gene for fate.” This furthers the question of “who can straighten what [God] hath made crooked?” and adds an undertone of Christian-based spirituality to the text. Through such intertextual references, Niccol reminds us that science is not in control of the destiny of genetically engineered human beings and infers that anyone who tries to “tamper with” nature will find themselves culpable, whether it be that they are responsible for the creation of an unjust, discriminatory society or whether further spiritual agendas can be identified. Either way, it is still interpreted that Niccol is condemning the idea of engineering procreation in support of the notion that nature’s flaws are less damning than the problems associated with the geneticist’s supposedly perfect test tube.

Despite Niccol’s attempt to portray the opposing argument to the debate by quoting the comment made by Willard Gaylin, that “I not only think we will tamper with Mother nature, I think Mother wants us to”, Gattaca remains on no neutral grounds regarding which type of society is preferable: the natural or the genetically modified. Throughout the film, Nichols manages to present a respectful, although biased, account of the disasters and the circumstances that would arise if the world was to plunge into choosing the child that is “simply the best of [them].” The note to viewers at the beginning of the film, stating that it is set in the “not too distant future” can be read as a warning that society is headed straight in the direction of the mentioned scenario. Although Niccol is respectful to the need for genetic research, the message of his film screams that there is only so far that science can safely go.

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