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Cinemalphabet: G is for Gattaca

October 6, 2010


In the provocative and expertly argued piece titled, “Revealing Disability: Gattaca and the Ideology of Ableism” the author writes:

But what most viewers miss, I argue, is the film’s troubling implications for the discourse of disability and identity politics. Because in the post 9/11 age, US culture increasingly resents the “victimary rhetoric” of the left, , audiences will likely miss that they are themselves disabled, in terms of the films social model of disability, which works along lines of class and genetic perfection, creating “invalids” and “degenerates”. Therefore I take a closer look at how the film’s use of the science fiction genre reveals and conceals the social construction of disability and ability around a dangerous medical discourse, which, through its reduction of social relations to the myth of natural selection, replaces the functions of God, law, and destiny.

My own reading of the ableism presented in the film falls along similar lines; what I found most intriguing was the “good disabled/bad disabled” dichotomy, framing the intersection of class with implications that disability informed by higher class status results in erasure of the ableism. Smells suspiciously like the same argument used to question the legitimacy of experiences of racism noted by affluent POCs/Non White.

It’s analysis that’s easy to miss – what, with the geewhizatronics, murder mystery and glorious production values.

That said, I do think that Gattaca is somewhat aware of the problematic way it frames disability and ableism, attempting to use sleek retrolicious production values and the dystopian hat trick: people/objects arranged in neat rows/columns, drab color palette/structured clothing and beautiful, but stark surrounding. The sleek metallic future is designed to evoke the feelings of isolation and dread and by extension demonstrate this is a nightmarish glimpse into the future.

Gattaca’s flaws lie in its assertion that the genetics is a truly level playing field. “DNA has no nationality” or whatever Vincent (Ethan Hawke) blathers in a snarky voiceover. The film does not explain or suggest that access to health care, food or education or at all equitable, which means it’s safe to assume that discrimination based on DNA, which supposedly affords everyone the ability to screen and then select out only the most “perfect” specimens during conception process. Of course, the film seems unaware that rich people will still have an advantage in terms of access to health care and all that. More importantly, with the genetic testing available – even at the time the film was realized – while not as precise as what Dr. Blair Underpants showed Vincent’s parents, can achieve the same results, if a parent is so inclined. This is not new shit coming to light. The only thing different is instead of aborting fetuses deemed unworthy, you just don’t have to fertilize the “defective” eggs with “defective” sperm.

And good for fucking them, the whole ableist lot of them!

However, Gattaca is not a terrible film; it is an imperfect and problematic film. Jude Law gives a complex and subtle performance as Jerome, a disabled man who sells his DNA materials to Vincent on the lucrative black market. Jerome uses a wheelchair and alternates between snarky and sulky. The emotionality is not sharply delineated, but ebbs and flows in a manner that feels believable, given the framework of the story – which I’ve already established as problematic as it relates to disability. Lovely turn by Tony Shaloub as the distinguished salesman brokering the deal. Shaloub only appears briefly, but he’s doing some fine work here. Ethan Hawke is fantastic in this film, finding the sweet spot between cynicism and vulnerability. If you’re generally “meh” about Hawke, you will find yourself surprised. Despite being a talented actor he’s not exactly known for having a huge range. Nevertheless his talents are well matched for his role here.

Uma Thurman is the standout as Irene. Granted, none of the performances are stinky, however, hers is my favorite and by far the most interesting. Even with all the carefully constructed sci-fi world, the film couldn’t figure out where women would fit into the construct. Irene is Gattaca‘s resident Joan Holloway. Not necessarily in job duties – though I’m not sure of her actual job, seemed like an upper level engineer, but it’s left kind of vague – but in her mannerisms and speech patterns. Irene is a cross between Joan and Rachel from Blade Runner. At first it took me a minute to figure out Thurman was affecting her speech for the character. Before Gattaca I hadn’t seen a lot of Thurman’s work. Irene keeps Gattaca from becoming another emotional sterile dystopian exploration a la Inception or Equilibrium .

Gattaca is an entertaining film with gorgeous visuals, a provocative premise and strong performances. Noting the ableism doesn’t lessen the artistic value, though as an asthmatic with the pointy eye it did make me a bit annoyed as I wondered where I would fit into that world. With all the conversation around disability and ableism, Gattaca offers nothing new to the discourse about either. Instead, Gattaca taught me that science can make bigots much more efficient in their efforts to identify, isolate and oppress their targets.

Gattaca is currently on Hulu (where available).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. hsofia permalink
    October 6, 2010 12:59 pm

    Gattaca is on the short list of films I’ve seen more than a couple of times. Some of the things that always strike me about it were how Vincent couldn’t have gotten to where he was without help from subversives working within the system; the total absence of a social life – all the things he sacrificed in pursuit of this single mindedness and protecting his secret never struck me as desirable; and the fact that he had to literally leave the planet in order to transcend these restrictions.

    Ever since I saw it for the first time, I’ve wished there was a companion movie to Gattaca – a movie that was about life for the average (non-passing) person/family in such a world.

  2. October 6, 2010 2:08 pm

    I have to confess to you, I tried watching Gattaca back when it first came out on DVD and I fell asleep. Twice. I think wasn’t ready for it. I’m going to give it another try; after all, I didn’t regret finally catching The Fifth Element!!

  3. October 6, 2010 3:02 pm

    Excellent post! I haven’t seen this film in many years and I think then I was won over by the glossy production values and strong performances, while not taking too much time to think about its sociological commentary. Next time I see it I’ll be sure to probe a bit deeper!

  4. October 6, 2010 6:06 pm

    Movies like this often make me think about where the line gets drawn between variability and disability, and what degree of accommodation a society is willing to provide. Eyeglasses are at one extreme… other than not being able to fly jets, there’s little my poor vision does to limit what I can do. I suppose this is because so many people have this disability, and because people who have it are widely spread on a spectrum from 20-20 to sightless. Wheelchairs provided many with increased mobility; I suppose that also increased their visibility and perceived value to the degree that wheelchair ramps are seen as beneficial to society in general (and of course cyclists and skateboarders benefit as well).

    Anyway, this was a wonderfully thought-provoking analysis of a beautiful film.

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