Since the inception of psychology, the moment when the speculation surrounding the motivations of man moved away from philosophy and nudged it closer to science, there have been many different theories on how people come to grow and evolve into the people they become. It’s an argument which happens in classrooms, in science journals, and in art, such as movies. Many arguments have been made as to what determines one’s psychology, from genetics to environmental influence to whether or not we comes as we are or are really just blank slates or canvas for paint to be thrown on.
One such movie to tackle these ideas is Gattaca.
It is a movie about a dystopian (or utopian, depending on where you’re standing) society where technology has come so far that right at birth it can be determined when and how a person will die, the physical illnesses and mental states they will be prone to. Science has advanced in such a way that parents can also determine which characteristics they want their unborn children to have in an attempt to give them the best possible start.
This eventually leads to discrimination and a new class system, where those people who are “faith births” (people who are conceived the old fashioned way and not in a lab) and considered the underclass and must work in menial jobs, whereas the elite people made in the lab are the upper class of society. Almost all other forms of stratification are done away with and it’s this genetic determination that is the only stratification. In this there are “valids” and “invalids.”
The story begins in the offices of Gattaca, a company that does space exploration missions. It shows how people constantly have to validate their identity by providing their genetic information for analysis.
The main character is Jerome and he narrates his day leading up to the investigation of the murder of one of the director’s of the institute who had been threatening to end the upcoming mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s at this point in the story that we learn that Jerome is actually Vincent. Time jumps backward and Vincent narrates his life up to the moment where the movie begins.
Vincent was a faith birth and his parents were told he would die young of heart disease. His father is ashamed of this and refuses to give Vincent his name, Anton. Vicent grows up being treated like a fragile and sickly boy. His brother, Anton, is eventually born and he is aided by the genetics technology of the age to give him the best possible chance. This physical difference isn’t just shown through the boy’s different appearances (Aton is strong and tall and Vincent is lanky and myopic) but also in the Vincent’s constant defeat at their game of chicken (where the two swim out into the ocean as far as they can go before one tires out and must go back).
But Vincent dreams of going into space and studies throughout his life to do so (all the while his parents telling him it is impossible as he is genetically inferior and that they don’t let invalids go into space). The turning point for Vincent comes when he challenges his brother to a game of chicken and they race and this time, not only does Vincent beat his genetically superior brother, but saves his life when he starts to drown from exhaustion. After that Vincent leaves home and begins to pursue his dream of going into space. This eventually leads him to Jerome, a valid, who was crippled in a car accident and sells Vincent his DNA so as to aid him in passing all the genetics verification tests.
The story presents several situations and ideas that can very easily be linked to the nature versus nurture argument in psychology as well as the nature of resilience in human beings as well as the power of an active and aware individual.
Many situations constantly observe that nurture is very capable of winning out over nature and that nature is very capable of failing. The first example of this is when Vincent beats his brother Anton at their game of chicken. Later in the film, after Vincent is at Gattaca, the two characters meet up again and again race out into the ocean as adults and Vincent again wins, revealing that he used up all his energy just to stay ahead of Anton and never saved any strength to get back to shore.
Another showing of this and a parallel to the brother’s swimming game is Jerome, a very genetically superior person who swims for sport, but during his last race he only comes in second. All his genetic promise yet his ability to only come in second leaves him depressed and he tries to kill himself, an accident by which leaves him wheelchair bound. This environmental influence shows how an external stimulus caused Jerome to betray his genetics and become depressed and try to take his own life.
This theme of nature versus nurture comes up again and again. An eyelash of Vincent’s is found at the murder scene in the beginning and the police suspect him as he isn’t suppose to be there and his genetic code is predisposed to violence. The lead detective, who is later revealed to be Anton, doesn’t think that it’s Vincent who has killed the man. One of the other detectives suggests that it is the mission director who has done it. The director’s response is that they can check his genes, that he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body. Toward the end of the movie it is revealed that it was in fact the mission director who committed the crime, his motivation being that his superior was going to cancel the mission and the director wouldn’t live long enough to see the next launch to Titan.
The movie again and again presents these themes of nature versus nurture and the power of resilience, through both blatant and subtle. The discourse is plentiful. Vincent does eventually get into space and it isn’t because of his genetics, it’s through his force of will, his determination, and persistence in the face of failure, despite his nature and the discouragement of the world around him.