Gattaca is spelled using the abbreviations for the four nucleotide bases that compose DNA (guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine); and this movie dealt primarily with the ethical problems posed by the Human Genome Project and the projected innovations and gained knowledge that serious scientific study into the human genome might yield. The scientific community was and still is questioning the intelligence of humans changing their genome just because they might someday have the ability to do so. Bioethicists were dealing with such nebulous issues as the possibility of genetic discrimination, the likelihood of a blurred line between genetic therapy and eugenics, and curiosity regarding how widespread disseminated genetic knowledge would change the way the world worked. Gattaca is strongly affected by the contemporary culture of the time since writer/director Andrew Niccol took those issues and extrapolated a startlingly realistic future that clarified those issues into a dramatically compelling cinematic vision with many implications for scientific policy makers.
A short summary of Gattaca's basic plot will greatly aid further discussion of this movie's influence from culture. The protagonist in Gattaca is Jerome Freeman, a man born naturally in a world where the persons who achieve success have been genetically engineered. This genetic enhancement is a process which weeds out not only inherited diseases like Cystic Fibrosis, but also allows the parents to essentially design their child, adjusting physical and mental attributes at will. This massive genetic engineering created a very orderly world where a person's future was quite literally written in his genes, and anyone who desired to read it, could. That is, technology in Gattaca was at a level where employers could screen job candidates for likely future diseases and eliminate unnecessary costs from their insurance plans. As a natural birth, Jerome faced genetic discrimination (called 'genoism' in the film), an inherited heart problem that gave him a projected life span of thirty years, and a wealth of other obstacles.
Jerome had no chance of succeeding, and yet his ambitions to become an astronaut and work at the Gattaca Corporation drove him to incredible feats of perseverance. In order to attain his goal of travelling in outer space, Jerome ignored his critical parents, and worked hard in dead end jobs. He eventually gained entrance to Gattaca by becoming a 'borrowed ladder' (an un-engineered person who rents the DNA of an engineered, but financially unsound person) and assuming the identity of Eugene . The plot thickens when Jerome's mission is jeopardized by the murder of a coworker, and that crime's subsequent investigation. Jerome was implicated as a suspect and spent the last few scenes of the movie confronting family, the police, and his love interest Irene. Although the film contains a variety of subplots, the most relevant facet of this film is the stark examination of human genetics and the results of its application in everyday life.
Gattaca's production staff managed to tackle heavy scientific issues in a science-fiction setting without resorting to stereotypical sci-fi tricks such as incomprehensible jargon in the script or sets/ costumes that inspire disbelief. Gattaca presented a plausible guess at what a culture inundated with genetics and genetic capabilities might look like with by using retro costumes, existing locations for sets, and innocuous props that made genetics believable. This accurate, but not exaggerated depiction is impacted by culture because much of the American public in 1997 had little to no genetic education and would not find a highly technical story accessible at all. Niccol's story explores the complex issues of scientific innovations not fully understood by the scientific community in 1997. Andrew Niccol, the screenwriter, wrote about the moral problems that genetic innovations posed. Niccol argued that in order to avoid genetic stagnation a standardized definition of disease and a philosophical examination of the motivations for treatment were needed. Gattaca shows how an unclear definition of disease could lead to people seeking treatment for conditions like shortness, myopia, and obesity rather than Huntington's Syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis. The genetic engineers of Gattaca attempt to improve the human genome and not treat disease. The tireless manner in which the geneticists of Gattaca pursue normalcy reflects possible fears of some of the American public.
Gattaca also exhibits what many bioethicists and critics of the Human Genome Project feared, a blurred line between genetic therapy and eugenics. When Jerome's brother Anton was being engineered at the local geneticist's office, the geneticist eradicated diseases from the embryos and later pressures Jerome's parents into making other less health-oriented decisions. Anton ends up being tall, athletic, smart, and handsome (like everyone else who had rich parents) – characteristics added because his parents wanted him successful and not out of concern for Anton's health. This scenario encapsulated the fear that science would become so preoccupied with creating a superman that the very quirks that make us human would be forgotten. Pope John Paul II articulated this fear back in 1983 at a conference with the World Medical Association. During his speech to them, he cautioned against humans loosing their uniqueness and diversity through genetic engineering…. the scenario which is played out in Gattaca. The Mission Director and Jerome's brother Anton (who became a detective) engage in conversation during the murder investigation. Detective Anton asks the Mission Director about the caliber of the individuals who work at the Gattaca Corporation. He reasons that Gattaca's employees must routinely exceed their potential since they have been quite professionally engineered and have no reason not to. The Mission Director corrects this assumption by saying, "No one exceeds their potential. If they did, it would mean we had not accurately gauged it to begin with." This quote shows that even a person's ability to excel in certain venues has been predetermined by how much engineering that person received. Gattaca is a world of homogenized people, desirable characteristics are isolated and then artificially promoted to become prominent traits in a culture. This is why the culture displayed in Gattaca is fairly eugenic; people with less impressive DNA profiles are awarded inferior treatment, even to the point of genoism.
Genoism, the film's term for genetic discrimination, was another timely issue for the bioethics community. In 1997, the Human Genome Project had yet to be completed, but was still making lots of news and raising many pertinent questions. People wanted to know who owns an individual's genetic information, who should have the right to access it as well as the likelihood of genetic discrimination becoming prevalent. A newsletter from the Human Genome Project cites numerous attempts for legislative action to prevent genetic discrimination. Intelligently, the bioethics community saw the possibility of genetic discrimination and wanted to prevent it before it grew into a social problem. Gattaca echoes this fear – genoism runs rampant even though laws exist to prevent it. Jerome, upon his arrival at the Gattaca Corporation as a janitor sums up genoism, "I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social standing or the color of your skin. No we now have discrimination down to a science." Parts of American culture likely saw the advent of genetic expertise as an indicator of the downturn of modern society. By showing genetic discrimination honestly, Niccol reflects the fear of new information and skills into his film.
Gattaca is by no means a happy movie; Niccol's screenplay took issues bothering Americans and imagined depressing, yet highly realistic methods that showcased the dark side or negative aspect that could be a result. As scientists learn more and more about the human genome, genetic applications will likely become an integral part of American culture. Gattaca shows the co-existing with complex technology that was weighing on the minds of many bioethicists. Gattaca also looked at the consequences of too much knowledge given too freely. Many people fear eugenics and genetic discrimination; Gattaca displayed why that fear was valid as well as how very close we are to making important decisions on these issues. Gattaca serves as a scientific policy maker's example of what not to do. The future presented in Gattaca is not rosy-red; it is an affect of American culture and all the uncertainty attached to genetics all the ethical complications of complete knowledge of the genome.