Andrew Niccol's film 'Gattaca' depicts a futuristic world where genetic make-up is all. Sci-fi it may be, says Marek Kohn, but there are no laws of nature blocking the way
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The Independent Culture
IN THE FUTURE, everyone will wear black, and only four letters will matter. As the opening credits of Gattaca materialise, all the Gs, the As, the Ts and the Cs appear first; a nice expression of the hypnotic power of genes. A person's name takes second place to those of its letters that also stand for the four elements of the genetic code. G is for guanine, A for adenine, T for thymine, C for cytosine; and there you have the bases that put the variation into a string of DNA. In the world of Gattaca, people see the genetic profile first, and the person second, if at all.

Gattaca is set in the not too distant future, in a world said to be based on scientific advances made round about now. The human genome has been domesticated and industrialised; for prospective parents, it has been transformed into a consumer product. A softly-spoken counsellor advises a couple that he has not only purged their offspring's genome of genes that might threaten its life, but has taken the liberty of clearing out "prejudicial" genes for conditions such as baldness and myopia. "It's still you," he reassures them. "It's simply the best of you." (Unfortunately, the line is simply the best of an otherwise lacklustre script.)

Andrew Niccol's film has been neatly positioned against the scientific calendar. Its British release coincides with National Science Week; in the US, it appeared around the time of a National Institutes of Health gene therapy conference. One of the participants, Huntington Willard, vehemently rejected the idea that the Gattaca future is not too distant. There wasn't a "chance in hell", he declared, of successfully reordering the human genome on a scale like that. As Gattaca rolls out around the world, scientists in Britain and other countries will probably echo the claim, heading off public anxiety by pointing out that genetic therapy has yet to deliver results. But we aren't talking about warp drive here. Immensely difficult as it may be to make genetic manipulation into a practical procedure, there are no fundamental laws of nature blocking the way. Although many scientific insights never lead to applications, despite years of research effort, others can make leaps that take the world by surprise - and we have the sheep to prove it.

As a dramatisation of issues that are looming right now, Gattaca's future is close enough to touch nerves. Another NIH scientist, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, acknowledged this by going to see the film twice, taking 60 of his colleagues with him on a works outing the second time. In movie terms, Gattaca has many weaknesses, the most salient being its plot and its characters. Like Blade Runner, however, it projects an impressive cinematic vision of a future which picks up some of the grain of our own world.

The most striking difference between the two films is that Gattaca is as clean as Blade Runner was dirty. Ridley Scott brought mess to science fiction with Alien, in which new machines got old and the workers got disgruntled. He then deployed it to great effect in Blade Runner, in which the idea that technology doesn't guarantee order was epitomised by the graffiti-covered videophone. In Gattaca, barely a hair is out of place. The ultimate gesture of good faith is for a woman to pluck a hair from her head and offer it to a prospective partner, so that he can check her DNA. The ultimate gesture of trust is for him to let it blow away. Vincent Freeman, who makes this gallant response, is nearly undone when one of his eyelashes is discovered on one of the obsessively vacuumed surfaces of the Gattaca space agency where he works.

Freeman's secret is that he is a "faith birth", whose parents left his genome up to Nature. Instead of the traditional smack, his welcome to the world was a heel-prick and an instant DNA profile. Even as his mother was embracing him for the first time, the nurse read out his statistical death sentence. The DNA indicated a weakness of the heart, and a life expectancy of 30.2 years. Realistic expectations are no more popular in the not too distant future than they are today, so young Vincent resolves to become an astronaut. When he grows up, he makes a deal with an illicit identity broker. In return for a percentage of his earnings, he gets the bodily fluids of a man whose genes are perfect, but whose body has been paralysed in an accident. With a drop of the other man's blood behind a patch on the finger, Vincent can pass through the stainless steel barriers in the Gattaca foyer, that puncture the skin for a blood sample (and which bear a distinct resemblance to those on the London Underground). Catheters and bags of his collaborator's urine take care of the routine tests the other side of the barriers, but Vincent has to scour himself every day to remove the hairs that might reveal him to be "in-valid".

Uma Thurman was an apt choice to play opposite Ethan Hawke, who takes the role of Vincent. At first glance she is icy Nordic perfection in her black suit and blonde side-parting; and Andrew Niccol may be permitted just this one Third Reich allusion. The thing about Thurman, though, is that she has a genuinely iconic screen quality without being classically perfect in appearance. Since the people of Gattaca only give first glances, the deviations from the ideal that hint at a personality fail to register. The trouble is that one can't tell whether the tepid chemistry between the Hawke and Thurman characters is meant to conform to the tightly buttoned mores of their culture, or whether the pair of them just couldn't get excited about the screenplay.

There's no doubt about the furniture, though. Vincent's home and Gattaca are indistinguishable, both of them expensively but minimally finished in hard and polished surfaces. At the office, ranks of operatives in black suits tap away in electronic pulpits, a superskilled version of an early 20th- century typing pool, invigilated by a pacing overseer. Amid all the gay talk of flattened hierarchies, in which sweatshirted codeslingers are hailed as the model of the professional of the future, this hark back to Modern Times comes as rather a refreshing change. The theme of the individual against the industrially homogenised mass certainly stands squarely in Chaplin's tradition. The Gattacans can enjoy one concession to design frivolity, however, when they are commuting. Their cars are postmodern reworkings of 1950s and 60s European designs. This probably played better in the States than it will here, where audiences will be asking themselves why on earth anybody would want to base a retro-styled car on the Rover 2000.

The aesthetic sensibilities of the Gattaca world are also part of the contemporary sense of taste, however, and this is a way of hinting that the cap fits in other ways. The class of person who admires stainless- steel kitchens is also, nowadays, increasingly liable to believe that we occupy a social order in which rank correlates closely with ability, and that ability is largely determined by genes. Critics are fond of the jibe that if the middle classes have become convinced it's all in the genes, they should not be so obsessed about which schools their children attend. This misses the mark because it fails to recognise what the middle- class determinists understand, which is that in a frenetically competitive society, even marginal advantages can prove critical.

Professional hereditarians, such as co-author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, are also perfectly well aware that the statistical effects they postulate do not exclude the possibility of individuals bucking the trend. Vincent's ability to perform to the elite standards of the Gattaca agency would not undermine their paradigm. They would just call it anecdotal evidence.

This is one of the two reasons why, having created an artful scenario for ethical discussion, Gattaca fails to leave its audience in a questioning and critical frame of mind. In fact it does the opposite: it permits middle- class people to feel comfortable about their contradictory attitudes. On the one hand, people are in the process of accepting that their capacities are largely innate. They may find some comfort in this: people who are reasonably successful may infer that they are constitutionally fit for the world, and they need feel no guilt about their station in life. They may also welcome genes as fixed points in a fluid world. On the other hand, people recoil from visions of selfhood that exclude the human spirit, a quality that is hard to define but easy to recognise when you see it. The story of Gattaca affirms both these positions: it's in the genes, by and large, but there are always exceptions.

The error of the Gattaca management, and the authorities in general, is to forget that their genetic manipulations produce probabilities, not certainties. They are so entranced by the power of the technology which shaped them that they forget that there are other ways of assessing people. This is why Vincent can get away with an ID photo, that of the man he is impersonating, which doesn't look much like him. When people can examine genes, they don't look at faces any more. It's a more telling point than it might first appear, if one thinks of the way that corporate bodies are prone to become obsessed with tools such as IQ tests, to the exclusion of common sense.

The other reason why Gattaca ends by stirring up complacency is that, unlike Blade Runner, it lacks class. Or rather, it lacks classes. Most of the people in it are impeccably professional at work, and impeccably bourgeois at play, as we see when they go out at night to magnificent halls of Edwardian grandeur. There are no teeming hordes in the streets at the bases of the skyscrapers, as in Blade Runner, nor indeed are there any streets. There are a handful of cleaners, but these are identified as the results of faith birth, not poverty. The elite contains its quota of black people, so viewers are not prompted to any awkward thoughts about inequality of opportunity. Money is not an issue; everybody can apparently afford to re-engineer their children's genes, but a few simply choose not to do so. Membership of the underclass has nothing to do with wealth or skin colour, just a quixotic resistance to progress.

Gattaca's bowdlerised politics contrast markedly with the talk given recently at the London School of Economics by Lee Silver, a Princeton biologist whose book Remaking Eden discusses reproductive technologies. Silver's major theme was the dangers that arise from the deployment of advanced reproductive technologies in the American medical industry, driven by market forces and outside social control. If Gattaca's elegant cinematics could have been infused with Silver's forthright politics, Sony might have ended up with a classic on its hands.

The strategic absence of a lower class not only attenuates the film's vision of society, but diminishes the credibility of the film's marketing campaign. On the website you can play Design-A-Child, then make a gesture to social responsibility by parti-cipating in a Gen-Ethics debate. If you want a reality check by this point, you could do worse than to search out one of several American websites offering sperm or eggs for infertile couples. As Lee Silver pointed out at the LSE Darwin Seminar, the Internet overrides national law. Although Design-A-Child is still just a game, those who can afford Internet connections are free to call up files which allow them to choose a source for their children's genes, using donor profiles that resemble the profile offered to Vincent Freeman by the identity broker. Take Number 1804 from the database of the Sperm Bank of California, brought to you by Reproductive Technologies, Inc: race/ethnicity: Cauc/Italian, Irish; skin olive; hair lt brown, strt, fine; eyes hazel; height 5ft 612in; weight 132; blood group A neg. Height, weight, eye colour, and race: it's all up for sale, it's now, and it's not fiction. 'Gattaca' is on general release from 20 March