There’s a certain type of sci-fi story that we all know: visitors from beyond make contact with humans and teach us something important about who we are and where we’re heading. It’s in 2001, Arrival, and Independence Day—well, maybe not the last one so much, but you get the idea. One of the great things about Gattaca, Andrew Niccol’s 1997 masterpiece, is that it doesn’t need an outside other to deliver a powerful, moving message about humanity; instead of aliens, we get a meditative, deeply introspective examination of the human spirit that’s limited strictly to humans. The result, I’d argue, is one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made.
Gattaca’s story is both simple and brilliant: in the future, genetic manipulation allows parents to do what all parents are driven to—give their children the very best they can. In this case, that means genes that’ll make them healthier, smarter, stronger, and allow them to live longer lives. Two children are born to the same parents: Anton (Loren Dean), who underwent genetic modification, and Vincent (Ethan Hawke), Anton’s older brother who was conceived without his genetics being altered. Anton is smart, strong—a nearly perfect human specimen. Vincent, according to genetic testing done right after his birth, is at risk for a number of health issues and likely won’t live past the age of 30. He’s known, in this world, as “in-valid.”
Despite all of his disadvantages—which are only magnified by the near-perfect people who occupy his world—Vincent refuses to allow science to control his destiny. He refuses to believe that there isn’t more to who he is than what can be learned from genetics testing. Vincent has a dream to work at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and become a navigator on a manned trip to Titan. Vincent’s biology says he can’t make that kind of trip, not to mention hold such an esteemed position; but Vincent’s willpower—his soul, his spirit, whatever you want to call it—says otherwise.
What follows is the story of Vincent’s elaborate attempt to become part of the team traveling to Titan. He forges a partnership with Jerome (Jude Law), a man whose genetics have been altered, like Vincent’s brother, and is therefore qualified to work at Gattaca. A murder mystery unfolds—bringing Vincent’s brother, who is a police investigator, back into his life—and there’s a race against the clock as the noose tightens around Vincent, desperately trying to avoid being discovered for who he really is. He has to elude his brother just long enough to board the rocket to Titan—the goal for which he’s sacrificed everything in his life.
The film’s sci-fi noir backdrop gives it a visually stunning quality; the set, the costumes, the overall design all add a wonderful, artful element to the movie. Gattaca looks and feels terrific. And while the story is somewhat pedestrian, it’s made into so much more by the meditative qualities that vaults Gattaca into the ranks of Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, and other sci-fi writers who used the genre to examine—with a clinical deftness—what it means to be human. On the surface, these luminaries seemed to have been staring into space when, in reality, they were peering into the human soul. And that is the thing that Gattaca achieves with unparalleled grace.
Now, I don’t want to veer too deep into a tangent, but it’s worth noting that I believe that there’s something unquantifiable within all of us. Again, call it what you want: a soul, a spirit, a life force, cosmic energy, whatever. But there’s something embedded within each and every one of us that transcends our DNA, our physiology—all of it. And whatever this thing is, it defines us more than anything we can see with our eyes and examine under a microscope. Gattaca is an inspiring affirmation of this quality, and the film’s message of triumph, of willing yourself to prove “I can” when everyone and everything else says “you can’t” will always be a powerful one.
There’s a moment at the end of the film where Anton discovers Vincent. They return to a place they visited as kids, a lake where they used to play chicken—meaning they’d swim out until one of them quit. The one who quit, always, was Vincent.*
(*Writer’s note: It’s been pointed out the Vincent once beat Anton, right before he left home–this is correct, and on oversight on my part.)
Now adults, the story is different. Vincent swims out past where Anton is willing to go, and in his exhaustion to try and keep up, Anton nearly drowns. Vincent saves him—like Anton saved Vincent when they were younger. Back on the shore, Vincent reveals how, after all these years, he was finally able to best his brother:
“I never saved anything for the trip back.”
It’s a line of profound beauty and meaning, and it perfectly captures Vincent’s journey of willpower and determination.
Gattaca is a movie rich in many themes, including bioethics and genoism. But like the story itself, what’s most profound, most moving, is Vincent’s journey—the human story that explores our limitless potential in the face of any adversity.
Michael Moreci is a comics writer and novelist best known for his sci-fi trilogy Roche Limit. His debut novel, Black Star Renegades, is set to be released in January 2018. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelMoreci.