Gattaca: A Theological Analysis

Released in 1997, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Gattaca, is a science fiction film that centers on a future society governed by the ability to manipulate the genetic-make up of offspring to guarantee the best hereditary traits introduced by the parents. The film chronicles the account of Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke) and his aspirations to become an astronaut navigator at Gattaca, a space research center, despite his genetic short-comings due to Vincent being a natural birth or a child not born in a petri dish at the hands of eugenics, the manipulating of DNA, and the social genetic discrimination that follows. Vincent, a so-called “in-valid” in his pursuit of a career in space exploration, relies on the practice of “borrowed-ladder” in which Vincent poses as a valid by using another valid’s blood, hair, skin and urine, Jerome Eugene Morrow. Jerome was a former swimming champ who had been paralyzed in a car accident. By the use of Jerome’s DNA samples, Vincent is able to fabricate his way into the ranks of Gattaca with promise of visiting Saturn’s moon Titan due to Jerome’s superior genetic make-up. The narrative follows Vincent’s attempts to remain anonymous during his last week at Gattaca before his trek to Titan while an investigation for the murder of an administrator is taking place. The film presents philosophical issues regarding genetic engineering (Eugenics) and free-will through Vincent’s pursuit of space travel in a genetically-biased society; these issues bring into perspective the theological issue of legalism and justification when correlated to Vincent’s perseverance to become an astronaut at Gattaca.

In this alternative futuristic narrative, Gattaca, provides us with a sci-fi film which reflects on the microscopic exploration of the genre rather than the telescopic exploration presented in the script. The film’s final frontier, one could say philosophically, is its questions examining the ideas of free will and genetic engineering posed by two statements in the opening scenes. The assertions:

“Consider God’s handiwork: who can straighten what he hath made crooked.’ – Ecclesiastes 7:13”

“I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature; I think Mother wants us too.’ – Willard Gaylin”

The first being a verse from the book Ecclesiastes of the Holy Bible, which seeks to challenge mankind to consider the hand of God concerning the Earth and the fullness thereof; all which belong to the Creator of nature. Who can straighten what he hath made crooked, out of the many idols and distractions we, as flawed creations, seem prone to substitute our relationship with God with is the idea that we ourselves can reconstruct the distortion of our human nature. The latter quote presented by Willard Gaylin, brings into perspective the catch-22 (the solution to the problem cannot be the problem itself) of mankind’s nature, as stated above, by our natural drive to repair our existence’s impairment. Just as Gaylin’s statement is contrary to the biblical verse so is our human nature to the intentions of our Creator.  In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton proclaimed,

“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

Denying the present union between God and man is possibly the most accurate description of the distortion of the human genome; it also describes the consequence of the conviction we humans have when we recklessly abuse our free-will when we lack the divine discernment of our actions. However, through the philosophical issues addressed by the premise of the film, there is a theological understanding of legalism in the narrative to be found through the perspective eyes of a believer in Jesus Christ.

The story of Gattaca asserts that though genetic engineering is profitable, it is not a guarantee when a geneticist in the film states, “We want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn’t need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind… You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.” While eugenics is profitable in our humanly plight against our catch-22 dilemma, it is not a solution. A running theme throughout the film, as well as the tagline for the films marketing posters, is there is no gene for the human spirit. This theme is reiterated by a few plot points, one being the swim competition, Chicken, between Vincent (an in-valid) and his younger brother, Anton (a valid), in which the two set out swimming into the bay until one chickens-out and turns back towards the beach. Though Anton, being a valid and therefore genetically superior to Vincent, essentially defeats Vincent in the beginning, we eventually see Vincent overcome Anton subsequently because Vincent never saved any energy for the swim back. There is much to break down here theologically. Let us examine this legalistically. When considering the theological argument of legalism and correlating it with the philosophical debate of genetic engineering posed in the film, the geneticist asserts that we as humans already have enough imperfection on our own and therefore according to the paradoxical situation of a catch-22, we as humans and all that we entail cannot be a solution to our imperfection. Though following the law is profitable it is not the author of our salvation. Though the law of God given to Moses’ expounds upon God’s righteousness to us, it is through faith in Jesus Christ that God’s righteousness is imputed to us. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians states, “[God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him,” (2nd Corinthians 5:21 NASV). Another plot point examining the theological issue of legalism through the philosophical guise of genetic engineering is Vincent’s struggle through studying and training to gain admittance into Gattaca despite his genetic short-coming. Vincent states during the narration of his predicament, “For all my brave talk, I knew it was just that, no matter how much I trained or study, the best test score in the world wasn’t going to matter if I didn’t have the blood test to go with it.” Vincent didn’t have the DNA resume to pursue his dream. He needed a donor. He needed Jerome. Just as Vincent need Jerome, Christians as well need the justification and sanctification of grace through Jesus Christ if the distortion of humanity, our genetic short-coming, if we are ever to reconcile our unity with the Creator. (Romans 5:15-21).

Genetic engineering didn’t guarantee Anton’s dominion over Vincent’s spirit, neither did any amount of studying guarantee Vincent’s entrance into Gattaca, nor does legalism (works of the law) guarantee salvation if there is no faith in God’s grace. While genetic engineering is profitable, it is not the solution to mankind frailty of fate. Fate in that Vincent’s will would allow him to overcome Anton’s superiority; fate in that no matter how much effort Vincent strove to study the heavens and train his inferior body, it was his genes that would determine his employment. Fate that no amount of obedience to an outward circumcision is going to justify mankind less he be circumcised of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:29). Philosophically and theologically there is profitability in genetic engineering and legalism, however, just as mankind cannot repair the apparent impairment of Mother nature, neither can man justify himself through obedience to the Law of God without faith, the superficiality of partiality in Christianity. In conclusion to the matter let us strive to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by the renewing of our minds and the circumcising of our hearts with daily devotion to the knowledge of God, so that we may overcome the short-comings of our genetic disposition and may reconcile our relationship, our unity with our Creator.

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