History has shown us everything we need to know in terms of what to change in order to create a better future. However, selective memory and the very human tendency of denial in the face of discomfort or hardship lands us living as our ancestors did, repeating history, none the wiser.
This is one of the many underlying messages in the film Gattaca, which Andrew Niccol – the director, presents to us using visual references to the early two thousands. Andrew saw the dangerous circular pattern in which humans live, never learning from past mistakes, but always complacently thinking that they were happier, or things were better before.
First he draws on our selective memory of the past – imagining that it was better than the present, then pointedly reminds us of the racism, class struggles and other issues that plagued the twentieth century that we seemed to have forgotten in our lust for another time.
Niccol provides us with a warning as to how the future may turn out if we continue to live as the forgetful goldfish, swimming around and around in the fish bowl. He expertly laces the film with visual references to the past – more specifically the early two thousands, such as displaying cars like the 1970’s Buick Riviera and Rover. These cars are beautiful and ‘classic’, giving us a fond, but misguided nostalgia for another time. In this he is highlighting the human tendency to look to the past for answers, or think in the classic ‘ the grass is greener on the other side’ approach, that the past was better. In truth, the early twentieth century was a time when racism and class struggles reigned, dividing people and hurting lives. But through lazy human selective memory these hardships have been glossed over, covered up. Andrew understood the danger in this type of thinking and brought back the prejudices and hardships of the past along with the nostalgia inspiring, much loved memories of the early two thousands to give us a much needed wake up call.
To begin his lesson Andrew had to draw on our feelings of nostalgia, and did this by weaving the more flashy, loveable aspects of the twentieth century into the film. He did this by bringing back a variety of vintage cars such as the 1971’s Buick Riviera, 1960’s Jaguar and the 1970’s Rover 3500.
To remind us that this is indeed the future, he expertly makes the cars electric – as at the time ‘electric cars’ was a faraway, futuristic idea.
In the introduction to the film Jerome is conceived in a beautiful green Buick Riviera. The shot is taken from above in a birds eye view angle, which shows off the sleek, cone shaped back and wide skylight in which Jerome’s’ parents faces are visible. The design of the 1971 Buick Riviera was crafted to capture the ‘classic’ feel of the even older 1930s boattail roadsters. This desperate attempt at recreating something once loved brings to our attention how obsessed we are with another time… a ‘better’ time.
At every driving scene we are hit with more images of the sleek and stylish cars from the twentieth century, which dazzles us, and fills us with a misguided nostalgia for ‘the past’.
When Jerome and Irene are returning from a concert they speed through the night in a 1960 Jaguar Mk.II. After they are waved through the checkpoint we are shown a side profile of the car. It is long and grey, the stage lighting positioned to catch the glint of the metal trim around the cars body to capture its sleekness. Distracted by the love of beauty we forget everything to be learned from the past, in regards to racism and the class struggle, and focus only on a pretty car.
And that is how he did it. Automobiles run off electricity to reinforce that it is the future, but with the beautiful body of the cars we know and love. Our attention has been caught, and in a nostalgic way we are admiring the class and sophistication of the era. We think ‘the past was better’ or ‘why can’t today’s society look like that?’
We are feeling a lust for the past because of all the beauty it trapped in the form of a car.. we are right where Niccol wants us. Now to remind us of the hardships of the early twentieth century he brings back some of the harsh racism of the time – with a futuristic twist.
After the natural conception of the imperfect Vincent Freeman, Mr and Mrs Freeman decide to have their next child genetically engineered – as was common for the time. At the genetics counselling office the pair speak with a black geneticist about their future child. He explains to them ” I have taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions – premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism” .. the list goes on. At this Mrs Freeman interrupts, concerned about just how much is being predetermined for her child.
Mrs Freeman: “we didn’t want — diseases, yes”
Mr Freeman: “we were wondering if we could leave some things up to chance.”
Geneticist: “… believe me, we had enough imperfection built-in already. Your child does not need any additional burdens”
In this short conversation Niccol is reminding us of the racism that thrived in the early two thousands. By casting the geneticist as a black man Andrew is sending us a visual queue that represents the years of struggle and pain that comes with having a dark skin tone. Without even knowing a thing about the characters past, the colour of his skin adds staggering weight to his words. It is natural to want to escape imperfection, however ‘Gattaca’ is still laden with racism, despite this geneticist and many others efforts. Because the supposed ‘genetic selection’ of the future Andrew had to represent the racism of the past in different forms. It is no longer about the colour of your skin, or where you came from, but how perfect you are. Vincent – a naturally imperfect man – deals with this futuristic form of racism in a struggle that reminds us of the past and warns us about the future. We are repeatedly shown this new racism as the ‘invalid’ sign shines on the screen of any devise testing the real Vincent’s blood/identity. The sign means that because of his natural imperfections or differences Vincent is not able to get a certain job, achieve the same as a ‘valid’ and is viewed as lesser. All of these are direct parallels to the racism of the past ( and in some cases – unfortunately – still present)
After falling in love with ‘the past’ through the visual form of cars we are reminded of the ugliness of the time in the form of futuristic references to the racism that reigned. The black geneticist working for perfection in others and the ‘invalid’ sign that lights up our screens to show that Vincent will never be given a fair shot at his dreams all work to reverse our selective memory and remind us to learn from the past.
We are beginning to remember the truths of the early twentieth century, as opposed to letting ourselves be distracted by the beauty of the time – found in cars. Andrew shatters our easy denial that the past was better by bringing back the class struggle that was so prominent in the twentieth century. According to Marxism there are two types of workers: the bourgeoisie – those who control the capital means of production (the upper class) and the proletariat – the workers (lower class). For most of history there has been a struggle between those two classes – also known as the class struggle. In Gattaca this division of the classes could not be more pronounced. The bourgeoisie, or upper class are the ‘valid’s and the proletariat, or lower class are the ‘invalid’s – like Vincent. We are shown the separation between the two every time the ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’ sign flashes on an identification device. However never is the inequality between the two made more obvious to us than when we are shown the younger ‘invalid’ Vincent working as a cleaner at the space station, dreaming of being an astronaut. Niccol has chosen two occupations that are polar opposites – in many people’s minds cleaning being a lowly job, and working as an astronaut the pinnacle or ‘dream’. In the scene we are shown a commuter vehicle, loaded with cleaners, all dressed in a uniform grey. As the group passes the younger Vincent slides into view. From the eye level angle only the back of his head is visible, but it is bent in a submissive, broken pose. As the workers unload and shoulder their tools Vincent rises and turns, looking up. We are shown a point of view shot, taken at a low angle, facing straight up to where a launching rocket is visible through a wide skylight. When the camera is turned back to Vincent he is smiling, taken by ambition. At this point in the scene we are inwardly smiling, enjoying seeing a lowly worker looking up to bigger, better things – inspired and eager…. however Niccol cruelly reminds us of the historical division of classes when Vincents supervisor interrupts his dreaming. He takes Vincent by the shoulder, hands him a mop and pushes him back to work. In this simple scene all the desperate, lower class people of the past are recognised, and we are warned that the struggle may continue into the future. In the way Vincents head is bent at the start of the scene – showing a defeated man, then in the way he looks up, obviously yearning to be something more, but is brought back to earth and reality as he is handed a mop. Because he is ‘invalid’, because he is not ‘upper class’ and because apparently there is a difference between the two.
I think Niccol was very deliberate when having Vincent aspire to be an astronaut, as, along with occupations like fire fighter and ballerina it is one of the things many of us dreamed of being when we grew up. In this we are brought a warm nostalgia for our childhood, but it makes it all the more painful when Vincent is denied the opportunity to follow his dreams into reality – as it is though we too are being denied. It is mimicking the uncomfortable break between a child’s dreams and an adults reality, as well as the difference between upper and lower class. By now the warm nostalgia for ‘the past’ and a lust for another time has faded from our minds as we are reminded, slowly, painfully, everything about the early twentieth century that our complacent denial has taught us to forget.
The last lesson – or reference to the twentieth century was made glaringly obvious by Niccol in a driven attempt to force out any denial we were harbouring as to the reality of the raw hardships of ‘the past’.
In Germany between 1935 and 1945 an estimated 10,000 children were born as part of the Nazi genetic selection scheme to create a ‘master race’ or ‘super breed’ of humanity. Men were made to mate with blonde, blue eyed Nordic girls to create the desired offspring, and these babies were thought to be superior, a race of perfect people. However, other than the obvious flaws in this plan, Hitler’s ‘master race’ took an even darker turn around 1940 as Germans with any physical or mental disability were slaughtered in an attempt to keep his race pure – resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Niccol reminds us of the pain caused by Hitler’s genetic selection constantly and undeniably throughout the film, as the entire Gattaca world is centered around genetic selection at any cost, geneticists working constantly to create a ‘master race’. Not only is their aim to eradicate hereditary illnesses, but to create the ‘perfect person’ physically.
A scene where Niccol makes this undeniably clear is when, in the space station the ‘valid’ workers are running on treadmills in synchronisation. The shot captures person after person in a long row of tall, muscled, youthful, seemingly ‘superior’ humans. No one limps, no one falters.. they are the elite, Hitler’s ‘master race’ carried out on a larger scale, years in the future.
Hitlers very name invokes a fear in most – as it should, however it is easier not to think about ‘all that’ and the pain, death and destruction it caused… so we don’t. Instead we marvel at a beautiful old car and think ‘the two thousands were such a classy time.. I wish todays society looked like that!’
From Irene’s blue eyes and blonde hair to a line of perfect people Niccol is showing us the images of the past – the time of the ‘master race’ projected into the future. He is reminding us about the pain of the past, and giving a warning as to the pain the future will hold if we don’t wake up from our complacency and denial and Remember.
Andrew Niccol used the film Gattaca to highlight our human tendency of simply denying, or choosing to forget the ugliness of the past. In our unwillingness to recall the pain of the early twentieth century we fall into living as our ancestors did, repeating previous mistakes.
To wake us up from this ‘goldfish’ state Niccol first brings back the much loved cars of the past. This has us feeling nostalgic, and thinking in the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ approach that the past was a better time than today. While we are in this nostalgic, complacent state Niccol breaks our easy denial by bringing back the racism, class struggle and Hitler’s life destroying ‘master race’. Through visual queues like Vincent looking wistfully into the sky, longing to break free of his predetermined given abilities or ‘class’ and a line of ‘valid’s, running in synchronisation – their physique and genetics flawless, we are seeing in fact the struggles of the past, projected into the future.
Niccol is trying to wake us up from the dreamy, complacent state of denial that we live our lives in, as, in ignoring the pasts lessons we are on the road to a future like Andrew Niccol’s perhaps not-so imaginary world ‘Gattaca’.