28 February 2009

Movie Review: Gattaca

The other day, Urmi and I watched Gattaca, which I had seen years ago but Urmi had never seen. I was reminded of how much I loved the movie -- both the themes it considers as well as the overall presentation. The movie is set in what it proclaims to be the "near" future, but in a world where genetic selection is commonplace. Parents have their children's embryos genetically screened before implantation, removing embryos with harmful genetic combinations (heart defects, myopia, etc). Many years after this practice came into being, the human race has stratified into two groups: Valids, those who were screened to remove the harmful genes, and In-valids, those who were not.

The core theme of the story is discrimination. In Gattaca, discrimination is based on genetics rather than skin color, gender, or other obvious characteristics. In-valids are explicitly barred from holding certain jobs. The protagonist of Gattaca is an In-valid named Vincent who dreams of being an astronaut -- and is willing to masquerade as a Valid to achieve his goal. Most of the movie is about how Vincent narrowly avoids detection during a murder investigation. The core theme, however, is how the Vincent's dedication to his dream allows him to overcome his genetic handicaps. Quite inspiring, really, although the movie is often about as subtle on this point as a Mack truck.

Although the theme of overcoming one's handicaps is touching and universally applicable, I think the movie's greatest aspect is the presentation of a biological dystopia in easily understood terms. The movie does an excellent job of describing the possible after effects resulting from widespread genetic screening as well as fast and efficient genetic identification. What would the world be like when it takes less than ten seconds to accurately determine whether someone has a heart defect? Or the possibility of going blind? What would happen to medical insurance, life insurance, and employment? Gattaca gives one answer to these questions: Things would not be good for the In-valids. The presentation, however, is key. Science fiction books have been toying with these concepts since the genetic code was first discovered, but I feel that movies like Gattaca do a better job of reinforcing the consequences of such inventions. Personally, the questions running through my head after watching such a movie are more fun than the movie itself.

In short, Gattaca is well worth watching (I give it an 8/10 -- 9/10 for science or genetic buffs) not just for the story and themes, but just for the exposure to an excellently thought out "what if" scenario. This is the sort of thing that Science Fiction is all about, and Gattaca excels at it.

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