Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca was released in 1997 and despite an underwhelming performance in theaters, it gained critical praise and continues to garner interest due to its glimpse into future bioethical issues. Both Joshua Gibbs and myself have a long history with the film and decided to collaborate on an extensive discussion of the film’s rich and elliptic symbols and themes.
RW: What’s your history with the film and how did it strike you?
JG: I saw Gattaca the weekend it was released in October of 1997. I was a sophomore in high school. If I remember correctly, I walked to the theater in the evening, saw the film by myself, then walked home when the film was over. It was a ponderous walk home. I had seen good movies before, but they were all old movies. My parents raised me on Hitchcock and Capra. I saw Shadow of a Doubt when I was eleven. They raised me right. But to see a very good movie newly released in the theater was nearly terrifying; before Gattaca, good movies had always been contained on small screens, in the living room, and could be paused, and the volume could be raised or lowered. When you watch a movie in your home, you have a sense of control over the movie that you don’t have in a theater. I knew, as I walked home, that I had just seen a story that was beyond me, beyond my intellect. I had the sense that something very powerful and very true lay beneath the plot, inside the characters; I did not want to be like Vincent, but I wanted to be like that thing Vincent wanted to be like. I loved him, although he was a fiction. I thought he was noble. I thought Jerome noble, too, and poured over his suicide, wanting it to be something other than it appeared to be. Vincent ascends to heaven, in the end, and Jerome burns, as though in hell. I wanted to watch the film until that suicide wasn’t a suicide anymore. I knew that the scene where Vincent and his brother Anton swim as far as they can was essential to the film, but I did not understand it.
When Vincent reveals that he “never saved anything for the swim back,” I gasped, but I did not know why. Since that first viewing, I have seen the film more than thirty times, and it has never diminished in beauty or mystery. When did you first see Gattaca? How did it strike you?
RW: I too saw Gattaca in the theater, but for the less noble reason of wanting to see more Uma Thurman after her work in Batman & Robin had caught my eye. I remember enjoying the film, but so badly attended what was before me that I described it to someone as a murder mystery. I liked it enough for it to be the first DVD that I purchased. I even bought the Superbit DVD a couple of years later (which was a little known hi-def format way before Blu Ray). As I rewatched the film I kept noticing little details that dragged me deeper and deeper into the world that Andrew Niccol created. It’s not just the cool 40s revival or the simple sci-fi flourishes that make the world convincing, but little things like the symbols for valids and in-valids being, respectively, an infinity sign and a cross. Then the terms “Jacob’s Ladder”, “faith birth”, “god-child”, “de-gene-erate”, then delving into the names of characters. It seemed that no matter where I looked the bones of the movie were there, the nucleotide title, the helix staircase, even the act of swimming felt rich with invested meaning. It is easily the most prescient movie of the last twenty years, but beyond the broad themes of science, fate and exceeding expectations, I felt that there were greater mysteries addressed. Gattaca has been a movie that taught me how to watch movies. Each time I return to it I carry away details and questions to connect and pursue. Regarding Jerome, I think the movie intends us to see that as a sacrifice. What drives you to say it is suicide?
JG: I don’t want Jerome to be a suicide; we are agreed, there are a host of ways in which the final shot of Jerome immolating himself with his silver medal might be read as a kind of sacrifice. However, let’s work our way toward the ending, and perhaps the meaning of the apparent suicide will become more clear as it becomes grounded in the narrative. I’ll credit you as being the first person to turn me on to reading deeply into the names of characters, and after our first reminiscences of the film, perhaps this is a good place to start. There is a spectacular tension in the birthing room when Vincent is born; his mother first names him Anton, which is his father’s name, and Anton is an abbreviation of Anthony which means “praise worthy.” His father objects, though, suddenly doubtful that his son, who is prophesied to die at the age of 30, will do much worthy of praise. Instead, he is named “Vincent Anton” and his younger, superior, genetically-engineered brother is Anton. Vincent means “Conquering,” and so his father recognizes that Vincent is not born fated for greatness, but must struggle to earn his surname, Freeman. At the same time, “Vincent Anton” literally means “Conquering the praise worthy,” and by the denouement of the film, Vincent has conquered Anton, both in body and soul. What of Jerome Eugene Morrow, though? And Irene Cassini? These seem harder names to unfold.
RW: Vincent is in need of a new identity, a new name, and Jerome means “sacred name”. His middle name, Eugene, means “well born” and I’ve always taken his surname to point to the future, to-morrow, the next morning. Eugene is the “borrowed ladder” or “Jacob’s ladder” that Vincent needs to ascend into the heavens, but he is not abandoned as is Anton, he follows Vincent. This might need more unpacking, but it gets us going at least. Irene, which means “peaceful”, takes her surname from the astronomer Giovanni Cassini who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and whose name is remembered in the Cassini Division, which has to do with the gap in Saturn’s rings. I suspect this is partly behind the abundance of curves or rings throughout the film: the tunnel, contact lenses, the curved architecture and furniture. Regardless, Irene is heaven on earth. Vincent has lived a monk- like existence with singular vision and in finding her he discovers a life. He still must go to Titan, for her and for Eugene, but when he returns he will not lose heaven. The middle part of the film encapsulates this nicely. After losing his contacts at the checkpoint he must pursue Irene across traffic, by faith and not by sight, and upon joining her walks in the golden morning light.
Later, the love scene is filmed upside down, a beautiful and disorienting shot, and the waters above them are not the waters below where he strives against his brother, but heavenly waters. But another name that is integral to the film is Jacob. Jacob is the Biblical patriarch whose vision of a ladder to heaven comes in his flight from his brother Esau. Jacob means “supplanter,” an apt name for Vincent. Your point on Vincent Anton is brilliant in that regard, not only does he conquer his brother, but that’s his middle name. By the way, this is the connection with Titan, who were a group of powerful deities supplanted by a race of younger gods.
JG:Your interpretation of Irene differs quite a bit from my own. While you see Vincent following her blindly as an act of faith, I’ve always thought it reckless. Irene is a diversion for Vincent, and the visual inversion of the love scene, wherein the water is above them, suggests an inversion of Vincent’s loyalties. From a young age, he has been called to conquer his failing flesh and ascend to heaven. With Irene, he gives in to the flesh. Their lovemaking is no fulfillment of Vincent’s purpose to ascend to heaven, for Vincent cannot be honest with Irene and lies to her about his injuries before returning to the ocean to cleanse himself, to repent.
I like your reading of Jerome’s name, though; he is well born, but must wait until “the morrow” to enjoy that good name. My own reading- the name “Eugene Morrow” was simply a misheard “eugenic marrow”- seems quite shallow in comparison. Jerome becomes a ladder of divine ascent for Vincent, and so perhaps his immolation in the end might be read as an ascension alongside Vincent, albeit in a fiery chariot. I feel this is a stretch, still. The “morrow” on which Jerome enjoys his good things, though, is the long second act of his life. While young, Jerome was a slave to success and that slavishness culminates in a spirit-crushing second place which leads him to try to take his own life, throwing his worthless body beneath a car. As an older man, Jerome is offered a share in Vincent’s good life, his “dream,” as Jerome sadly refers to Vincent’s life in their closing moment together. Ultimately, he rejects Vincent’s success, as does Vincent’s brother Anton. Jerome pours his life out for Vincent, but he behaves like a slave, in the end, as though he were only a body. His blood poured out, he is worthless. What is ironic, and perhaps the sentimental coup de grace of the film, is that none of the blood Jerome leaves behind for Vincent will be necessary upon his return. Vincent is forever vindicated by Dr. Lamar, whose name is a simulaphone of “La mer,” which means “the sea.” Prior to his ascent, Vincent was justified in the sea. Now, the sea itself has justified Vincent.
Jerome and Anton are similarly defeated, though; they both place second in swimming competitions. Jerome’s Olympic silver medal is in swimming, and Anton is a “silver medalist” against Vincent’s gold, both while a youth and as a man. The sea is an agent of chaos, and both Jerome and Anton rely upon coercive, forcible order. They are materialists who could never thrive in the water. However, I’ll not so quickly abandon Jerome. Jerome grants a relic of himself to Vincent and instructs Vincent to translate it to heaven (“not till you’re up there” can Vincent discover the contents of the reliquary envelope); Vincent is transformed into a priest in the final moments of the film, then, ascending to heaven and carrying the body of his accursed friend with him. He carries the most ephemeral part of Jerome, though, that part of a man which grows continually, and even grows after death.
RW: I still want to hold out for Jerome. He gives his life to Vincent, putting his faith in him. And remember, hair is not just a relic, but who he is. Just as the hair of Irene and Vincent were “caught by the wind” (and this serving as a confession of love), he ascends into the highest heavens caught up by his “big brother”. Nor would I be quick to undermine his service. Certainly Dr. Lamar has been converted from thinking “utero” is better than a “faith-child” and due to Director Josef’s actions (his gene profile showed zero tendency to violence) the view of vitros as a superior race will be questioned, but there’s nothing to suggest that this change will come over night. You’re right that Eugene is a broken man with many poor beliefs, but he’s clearly inspired by his dream and sees his death as aiding Vincent, even if the fire he’s consumed by is not an ascension. I remain optimistic for Jerome, even if the jury will remain out. Your comment on the nature of water as antagonistic to Jerome and Vincent is enlightening. I would add that there’s an element of origins, the womb. Just as Jacob and Esau were contending in the womb so to do Vincent and Anton struggle. And this idea is connected to space when Vincent he says “They say when you’re weightless is the closest thing to being in the womb”. Birth and rebirth. The movie poster reinforces this by pairing Saturn with an embryo. In an early draft of the script, the mission’s purpose is to discover the origins of life. The brother-struggle theme is further reflected in the names of the mission director (Joseph, the brother-struggler extraordinaire and Old Covenant dream-interpreter. It is Josef who makes Vincent’s dream come true) and the name of German, who transforms Vincent into Jerome (German means brother).
You almost cause me to waver in my view of Irene, but I’m a romantic so I’m going to push back. I agree that there is a discipline that borders on spirituality regarding the mortification of his flesh (cleanliness is next to godliness, as he says) and I too see his cleansing ritual by the ocean as penitential (for it was not yet time to give himself to Irene), but the calculated look, the suppression of emotions, the precision of his life is all part of the man-made world of technology. He must grow beyond this stage, he must embrace the natural world, the wild ocean, the mysterious moon of Saturn, and the celestial Irene in order to transcend the world. His mission does not end with Titan, it ends with Irene. I can see how using the ocean to represent the tumult of passion over against his Apollonian rigor, and thereby turning it upside down in the love scene, but I don’t see heaven and Irene in opposition. His ascent is the work, Irene is the prize.
JG: I want to hold out for Jerome, as well. When I say his hair is “a relic,” I mean it is who he is. A relic is not just a relic. However, you connect Jerome’s hair with Irene’s hair and Vincent’s hair, which is quite novel and lucid. I never saw that. Jerome’s hair is, perhaps, “caught by the dream” or “caught by the spirit” of Vincent into the air. Vincent also seems to inherit a double portion of Jerome’s spirit. He possesses his blood, but a reputation which transcends his blood.
Jerome is still a troublesome character, though. He is the unapologetic drunkard, and he pays for prostitutes, as well. He complains when his wine has not been properly decanted. The narrative makes him a rank sensualist. The scene where he cons a kiss from Irene as a show for the police is a favorite of mine, although I say that begrudgingly, because Jerome really is a rake. It’s fitting Jude Law played Alfie a few years later, I mean. We get the sense that his broken legs were a great gift of God’s mercy; had he been allowed to carry on the fast life of the Olympic star, he would have destroyed himself far more quickly. Vincent briefly gives in to Jerome’s way of life in sleeping with Irene, although he senses the physical danger which comes with surrender to sensuality; not only does he risk betraying his soul, but losing his life. When Vincent recklessly follows Irene across the street, he nearly dies as Jerome meant to die, hatefully throwing himself beneath a car.
RW: I agree with everything you say about Jerome, but there is a stark contrast with how he dies. Instead of throwing his life away as he attempted early, he gives it to his younger brother. He has learned from his mistakes, he has been inspired by Vincent, and confesses his shortcomings by his acceptance of his silver medal. He is on the pedestal, though he is secondary to his greater brother. Furthermore, where Jerome threw himself into ongoing traffic out of despair, Vincent ventures across danger out of love and pursuit of heaven. He calls her heaven and he tells her he will be back for her. I agree that he overstepped his bounds initially, and in the manner of Saturn, if he likes her he should put a ring on her, but to say the movie presents her as a distraction breaks the movie. But it seems like we’ll have to settle this in the sea.
But we’re right up against the question of science and faith. We might as well address that. What’s your take on the two quotes at the beginning? First Ecc. 7:13 “Consider God’s handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?” and then the quote from William Gaylin: “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.” As a side note, Ecclesiastes came later. In his early draft the first quote was from Justice William O. Douglas “As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
JG: I noticed that when I looked at the shooting script, as well. The Ecclesiastes quote seems like it can be taken a host of ways in the context of the movie. Given writer Andrew Niccol’s cruel, deterministic, self-absorbed god in The Truman Show, it would seem he means to borrow Solomon’s question ironically. “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” Who? Why the very works of God can make the works of God straight! That’s if we take Vincent to be the thing which God has made crooked; his own determination will make him straight, but also the mercy of Dr. Lamar and the declining bank account of Jerome. That the question is followed with the quote from Justice Douglas at least opens up the possibility that the God Niccol borrows from Solomon is an impersonal god, a divine principle, something Platonic.
That doesn’t feel satisfying, though, because I think you’re apt to read the quotes against one another; you inquire about science and faith at the same time you mention those quotes. When I think of science and faith at odds with one another, my mind immediately turns to Vincent’s birth. Two prophesies are given, the first from the nurse who pierces his foot and the second from his father who names him. Science prophesies Vincent will live 30 years, that he will die at about the age Christ was baptized. In naming him “Vincent Anton,” as was discussed earlier, his father prophesies Vincent will conquer his brother. The two prophesies are mutually exclusive. The first is rational, the second is suprarational; the first is in the new style, the second is archaic.The first is scientific, and it is wrong. The second is a matter of faith, and it proves sound.
The interplay between science and faith returns when Vincent visits Dr. Lamar for the first time. While Vincent is born with a weak heart, he is also born with massive genitalia, as the doc points out after collecting his urine sample. Vincent’s heart is his physical life, his materiality, his finitude. His “piece of equipment,” as the doctor calls it, is his heritage, his lineage, his telos. Niccol nearly suggests that a man must choose between a long life now or an inheritance in the life to come. While I yet view Irene as a distraction to Vincent, I think your reading of his crossing the road after her is better than mine. I formerly claimed it was reckless, although it was no less reckless than Vincent swimming against his brother and “not saving anything for the swim back,” which I take as an iron-clad image of faith. Now I can see the two scenes parallel each other.
RW: I love the idea of Vincent’s father making an unwitting prophecy and your point on Vincent’s equipment dovetails nicely into my thoughts. I take the two quotes at odds: God’s warning and man’s hubris. Although notice that God the Father is not opposite Mother Nature; in both quotes man is on the other side, which I appreciate because faith isn’t contradictory to science. In the film, man building spaceships is good, however man manipulating destiny is bad.
Initially I think we are to understand the crooked to be the faith-birth, the flawed. The quote seems to be acting like a taunt or dare: can you fix the genetic problems God has made? But now I wonder if it isn’t speaking about the morally crooked, those that try to manipulate destiny? Consider that the symbol of valids is 8, the helix, and is quite literally crooked, whereas in-valids are noted with †. Jerome is crooked and broken, due to his reckless living, and is often shown bent over his task of creating samples, but Vincent stands erect and is associated with the daily launches, straight into the sky. Jerome is slovenly and drunken, but Vincent is precise and sober. I always took the comment on Vincent’s manhood to be just a joke, but your comment fits here: it’s a hint to lineage, pointing to the new birth. So the question is who can make straight the crooked, the broken, the outcast? The answer, for reasons discussed above, is Vincent. He proves that destinies cannot be man-made, he gives new life to Jerome and Irene and initiates a new age.
This might help me solve the significance of Detective Hugo’s name. The name itself, derived from Hugh, means “heart, mind, spirit” which gets me nowhere since he is an accuser. My guess is that Niccol is invoking Victor Hugo and through him his Hunchback of Notre Dame, getting again at the idea of crooked. The other significant name that we haven’t discussed yet is the chief janitor Caesar. His name alone invokes the old age rulers and is the origin of the cesarean (as opposed to natural birth). Though part of this new underclass Caesar has bought into it and seeks to quash Vincent’s dream at every chance.
Any last thoughts? Any other questions you want to pursue?
JG: Caesar is an interesting case. The world of Gattaca is an inverted world, wherein the freemen are slaves and the slaves free. The director Josef is a protector, as is Joseph the Righteous’ typical role in the Holy Family. He is an overseer, a caretaker of both Christ and the Theotokos. Joseph is the proto-John, who finally take care of Mary after Joseph and Christ pass from earth. So, too, the director Josef protects the conqueror Vincent so the Ascension might be carried through. On one hand, the director Josef is a murderer, although I am more content to see him in the same light as Moses slaughtering the Egyptian who harassed Moses’ countryman. Stephen’s martyrdom sermon exonerates Moses’ slaughter of the Egyptian, either judicially or typically. While the film makes Lamar the vindicator, several times Niccol hints that Josef knows who Vincent is. The hand placed on his shoulder, the sudden appearance beside his station. We’re given to suspect him, although that suspicion never turns into an accusation. I say Josef is in on the scam, the scandal, just as Joseph the Righteous is ultimately in on the “scandal” of the Gospel. Vincent’s mother is Marie, incidentally, and in protecting Vincent, her son, I suppose Joseph is indirectly protecting Marie, as well. The movie has traces of the Holy Family fractaling out into every corner.
Furthermore, Vincent is the child conceived in a Buck Riviera (a “riviera” is a place with a view to the sea, tying Vincent to the water again; he is also conceived near the beach, while his parents overlook the same ocean which will finally vindicate the son who returns there instinctively over the course of his whole life; the final lines of the film suggest that in going to Titan, Vincent is going home, as well) because his “mother put her life in God’s hands rather than those of her local geneticist.”
Your reading of the symbols beside the valids and in-valids is sharp, and one which always washed over me in prior viewings. I would also note that the vertical helix might look like an infinity symbol, but there’s some dissonance within symbols which suggest the infinite. The uoroboros can suggest the eternal, but it can also suggest the cyclically banal, as well.
Your reading Jerome as the crooked thing which Vincent makes straight finally satisfies my sad, skeptical suspicion that Jerome was not offered much hope in the final coda of the story. In a paper presented in 2002 for the Southeastern Conference on Christianity and Literature, Michael Karounos suggests that Jerome’s silver medal becomes gold in the flames at the end of the film; in pouring himself out for Vincent, he was able to transcend his second-class status and become divine. Scripture and patristic theology are full of such images of painful refinement by the fire of God’s love. The suggestion that the two men have joined fates might also be suggested in Jerome’s claim that Vincent now has enough samples for “two lifetimes.”
RW: Thank you, Josh. Like I said above, Gattaca goes down about as deep as a movie can go. I know that there so much more to say about the film (is there a more perfect opening sequence? The body renderer strange, terrifying and beautiful. Skin like snow, hair like cedars falling, the follicles twisting into a helix..) and there are more questions to ask (all liquids are clear (water/vodka), red (blood/wine) or yellow (urine), what’s the significance?), but all things must end. This is a movie that can be watched over a lifetime I think, digging deeper each time. Like you, I’m sure, I look forward to returning to it in the future. Maybe we can pick up our discussion again.