GATTACA on Screen in San Rafael with Katie Hasson

Biopolitical Times
The movie screening in San Rafael

GATTACA was released in 1997, but — remarkably — is even more relevant now than it was then, as the technologies whose social implications it explores have developed considerably. 

On Thursday, June 13, the California Film Institute presented GATTACA to a sold-out house at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center as part of their Science on Screen series. CGS Associate Director Katie Hasson offered framing for the film and participated in a Q+A discussion.

The film’s plot explicitly involves what we now call techno-eugenics. The central technology is embryo selection: Embryos with the “best” genes are selected and the resulting person is designated a “valid” while the less fortunate are “in-valids” and as such are not qualified for many professions, including astronaut. The title is based on the the four nucleobases of DNA, Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, and Cytosine; the movie posters used the all-caps version, though “Gattaca” is how many newspapers presented it. The essence of the story is that the hero, played by Ethan Hawke, works to cheat the system and fulfill his dream of being an astronaut. 

The movie has remained popular, because (as critic Roger Ebert wrote) it is “one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas.” It has 87% audience approval from over 100,000 ratings  on Rotten Tomatoes. Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman hold the audience’s attention, along with cameos from Ernest Borgnine, Gore Vidal and Alan Arkin. But it’s the ideas that make it an enduring touchstone in discussions of genetic selection and modification because the issues it raises are ever more relevant

The sci-fi setup may have seemed far out when GATTACA was released, but today companies are selling claims that they can pick which of a series of embryos is likely to be most intelligent or healthy. Still, the science involved is dubious at best: there are genetic diseases and some can efficiently be selected against, but trying to select for intelligence? The scientific consensus is that you cannot; the shyster’s view is that the check will be cashed long before the child is grown.

In 2018, CGS hosted a series of screenings and discussions on “Gattaca at 20: Looking Back, Looking Ahead…” In 2022, Nature Genetics published a feature for the 25th anniversary: 

GATTACA is still pertinent 25 years later

Still true; unlikely to be outdated any time soon.