In the Kurt Vonnegut short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a gifted young man in a futuristic society is forced to adopt certain “handicaps” in order level the playing field against the far more average members, including physical and mental ones. His ultimate grand attempt to rebel ends in tragedy, but his mother is so low information that she barely registers the death of her son from the screen of her TV. The movie “Gattaca,” starring Ethan Hawke as a genetically inferior specimen in a society where those with more perfect DNA get the perks, flips the formula and explores what would happen if such a person decided to bend the rules and masquerade as someone he wasn’t born to be.
In “Gattaca’s” world, it’s not the color of your skin that determines your path in life, nor is it primarily the content of your character. Instead, your destiny lies in your genes, which your parents attempt to make the best possible (with the help of scientists) before your birth. Children who emerge in the world with prime DNA have a red carpet so to speak rolled out before them until death, whereas kids who are considered “invalids,” must labor at jobs for the unskilled as adults, regardless of their native intelligence. To ensure that no one attempts fakery of the magnitude that Ethan eventually does, citizens are subjected to random DNA checks and urine tests both in and out of the workplace. Because Ethan’s parents choose to have him without genetic testing first, he inherits a heart condition and is seemingly doomed to the latter life, unlike his younger brother. However, because he is inherently a dreamer who longs to explore outer space, he decides to hatch a plot that will either end in disgrace or triumph.
To pass as someone he isn’t, Ethan must borrow the DNA of none other than Jude Law, a champion athlete swimmer, who is in an extended state of the sulks because he lost a race. With this and a few other modifications, Ethan is able to swap his janitorial job for a much better one at the Gattaca Aeorospace Corporation, in which he is accepted as “Jerome” without a hitch and primed to become a space navigator. He even starts dating colleague Uma Thurman, a non-invalid but who has secrets of her own. Unfortunately, there’s a suspicious death at the corporation, and it takes no more than a stray eyelash to set the detectives on the path for who they believe is the culprit. Unless you haven’t seen a movie before, you will be surprised when Ethan’s brother (Loren Dean) pops back up as an adult, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown/reunion between the two brothers. “Gattaca” ends on a bittersweet note with Ethan on the way into orbit but with his heart condition likely not to return.
Incidentally,”Gattaca” is one of two movies with similar plots with Jude Law playing a similar character: a rich playboy whose identity is adopted by someone else for less than noble means. Two years later, in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Jude will be killed by nefarious social climber Matt Damon and yes, the same thing occurs. The difference in “Gattaca” is that the adoption of a false identity is consensual, although illegal in that society. It also looks at the extremes human beings will go to excel using every tool available (closely check out the pianist performing the beautiful concert that Ethan and Uma attend). Twenty years later, we are not yet closing in on the world of “Gattaca,” but it’s not impossible to imagine either. Instead of a world where everyone gets a participation trophy, we might one day have one where everyone excels – but because it’s natural to have this pre-arranged, a trophy isn’t quite that big a deal anymore either. A place where we’re all alike in our superiority doesn’t sound that exciting, but as long as we don’t lose our ability to question what makes us human, perhaps it won’t be too dull.