Lachlan Atcliffe is fond of saying “the golden age of science fiction is fourteen.” Whatever you were reading, watching, doing at fourteen, that is the high point of the genre, and everything since has been a terrible slide into mediocrity. With that said, there is a certain breed of SF film that always makes me feel fourteen.
For me, it chronologically starts with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, hits its stride at Blade Runner, and meanders past Dark City, Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix, Primer and The Man From Earth to reach new heights in the likes of Gravity, Her, and even Interstellar. These movies, as a “radial type,” are directly influenced by if not adapted from literary science fiction, are Spartan and theatrical in their writing, and distill speculative fiction into its most purified essence: telling a human story in a way that can only work with the science fiction in.
And, for me, the most perfect, the most archetypal, of these movies is Gattaca.
Gattaca is a 1997 Ethan Hawke vehicle, but don’t let that throw you. It’s the story of Vincent Freeman, a “faithbirth” or “in-Valid” conceived in the back of a Ford Riviera instead of in a controlled laboratory environment. In his world, it doesn’t matter where people are born, only how, and he was born wrong. His parents fear for his life when the nurse in the delivery room announces he has a 99% chance of a heart defect that will kill him before age thirty, in addition to myopia and the possibility of developing ADHD. His bosses tell him that, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of orbital mechanics and prime physical health, the only way he’ll see the inside of a rocket is by cleaning it. His younger brother, who was conceived in the lab (and with the specified hair and eye colors to prove it), tells him that he’ll never be as tall, as strong, as smart as he is.
Having set up the rules of Gattaca’s world, Andrew Niccol spends the rest of the film tearing it apart.
Vincent turns to the black market, and meets Jerome Eugene Morrow, a Valid “made man” who suffered a nasty twist of fate – after winning silver in the Olympic swim meet, he walked into traffic and lost the use of his legs. Vincent borrows Jerome’s DNA, his very life, becoming a “borrowed ladder” to infiltrate Gattaca and finally travel into space, as he’s always dreamed of. With a torturous morning routine involving scraping every last skin flake and hair follicle from his body and extensive amounts of Jerome’s bodily fluids, Vincent is one week short of achieving his dream, taking off for a year-long mission to Titan…
…when the mission director is found with his brains bashed in with a keyboard, and they found an eyelash from an in-Valid who becomes suspect number one.
The in-Valids are “a new underclass,” in Vincent’s words, and it’s hard not to notice two things about that underclass. One is how much it resembles the modern underclasses of America: we see in-Valids systematically discriminated against, casually stereotyped as degenerate criminals, roughed up by cops, segregated, barred from employment, and reminded of “their place” under their genetic (and moral) superiors. Ask all those black friends you have how much of this is science fiction.
The second thing you notice is how white this movie is.
For a film about a future underdog systematically rejected by society, it’s remarkable how monochrome the casting is. The corner geneticist is black, and the midwife/genetic tech at Vincent’s birth is an Asian woman. And …that’s about it. The trolley of Vincent’s fellow faithbirths is white, the in-Valids getting roughed up by police are white, the main cast are all about Uma Thurman’s coloration no matter where they are in society. The 1997 copyright only forgives the film so far – it still stands as a remarkable example of the near-universal stranglehold white men held on science fiction until very, very recently.
I’ve seen Gattaca a hundred times. This time, what stood out at me was the nobility of the entire cast. Vincent’s heroism is that of Rocky Balboa: he’s the palooka that nobody thought would amount to anything, and he becomes somebody through sheer, stubborn grit. Vincent’s heroism is easy to see. This time, I noticed the heroism of everyone around him. And each one was a deconstruction of the social order Niccol built in the first ten minutes.
Jerome has always been second best, and you get the impression that silver medal hangs heavier on him than his mangled legs do. He drinks, he smokes, he tried to commit suicide…but he cares about Vincent, and believes in him and his dreams of space. He cares so much he talks Vincent down from his panic attack, drags himself up the stairway through main strength, and leaves him enough piss, blood, and skin flakes “for two lifetimes.” I can’t help but see his suicide the way a Roman would have: a noble end to a worthy life. Not for nothing did his silver medal shine golden in his final moments.
Irene was supposed to be perfect, too, and she’s imperfect in a different way. Like Vincent, she has a heart condition, one that keeps her stuck on the ground when she dreams of the stars. It defines her world and her fears, and she starts the film trusting to society’s opinion of her (she takes “Vincent’s” hair to a corner geneticist for testing, and is distraught when Jerome’s sample comes back so good – this clearly means he’s better than her). When Vincent “loses” the hair she offered him to sample the same way, she realizes that genetic fitness may not be all there is to a person. This impression grows the more she aids and abets Vincent, until she returns the favor with a strand of his real hair…and rejects the genetic imperative of society. I don’t know what becomes of Irene. But, whatever she does, it sure as hell rivals Vincent’s accomplishments.
Lamar is the unsung hero of Gattaca. He gets two scenes, bookending the film, commenting on the size of Vincent’s equipment and woolgathering about his son. Lamar may be the highest-placed in-Valid at Gattaca, being in charge of the genetic purity screenings. And, as he reveals in the end, he’s known about Vincent the whole time. “Right handed men don’t hold it with their left,” he says, right before, “you’re gonna miss your flight, Vincent.” His son “wasn’t all they promised,” but rather someone like Irene, who was supposed to be perfect but was born wrong. And his son considers Vincent a hero, and he and his father believe “there’s no telling how far he could go.” For sake of his son, Lamar has kept Vincent’s secret the entire time he’s been at Gattaca.
There are people who will tell you that Gattaca is about human genetic engineering. These people are wrong. Gattaca is about overcoming the odds, about doing the impossible and, if you’ll excuse the meaningless meaningful words, “exceeding your potential.” It’s about how heroic it is to define your own destiny (Vincent), to wrest meaning from a cruel universe that has crippled you (Eugene), to take the first steps past your fears and your limits (Irene), and to quietly make greatness happen so it can inspire others (Lamar). Human genetic engineering is merely the science fiction element that puts the story into stark relief.
And that’s what makes it golden age.
Well, that and I was twelve when I saw it.