Gattaca and Twins: What do they say
about the future of Genetic discrimination?
By Jacob White
Current legislation dealing
with genetics revolves around privacy issues and discrimination
associated with the information that can be collected from ones
genetic makeup. The legislature has decided to address this issue
even though genetic research is still in its infancy and little
is known about how predictable ones genetics are to the outcome
of one's life. I believe that the legislature could stand to
learn a lot from two movies that delve into the possible outcomes
of genetic research. These movies are the 90's sci-fi drama Gattaca
and the late 80's comedy Twins. On the surface, these
movies may seem very random to be comparing, but I believe that
by comparing the different ways in which the characters deal
with their genetic inferiority, these movies can offer us insight
into the future of genetics (A notable similarity that lends
these movies to comparison is that Danny DeVito produced Gattaca
and stared in Twins. Furthermore, DeVito's character in
Twins is genetically inferior and shares the same name
as the genetically inferior character in Gattaca. Therefore,
Danny DeVito may very well have wanted us to compare these two
Gattaca is set in a not
so distant future where the majority of babies are produced in
test tubes to insure genetic perfection. The story centers on
a natural birth baby (who is referred to as "de-gene-erates")
named Vincent. At Vincent's birth the doctors inform his parents
that he will die at the age of 30 due to having a gene for a
heart defect. Vincent's parents' next child, Antoine, is genetically
engineered and the doctor informs his parents when they are purchasing
him, "The child is still you - just the best of you."
Antoine quickly becomes his father's favorite. The two children
often pit themselves against each other in a game of chicken,
in which they swim as far away from the shore as possible until
one of them turns around and comes back. As the genetics have
predicted, the weaker Vincent always turns around first. When
not playing chicken Vincent obsesses about becoming an astronaut;
his dreams are crushed by his father who tells him that with
his heart the only way he is ever getting on a rocket is to clean
it. That night Vincent and Antoine play chicken again; however,
this time Vincent wins.
The rest of the story revolves around Vincent assuming the identity
of Jerome (who is genetic perfection, but was paralyzed in an
accident). Vincent works his way to the top of the space program
(which is named Gattaca); one week before he is scheduled to
go into space a murder takes place at Gattaca. Detectives, known
as "Hoovers" or "J. Edgars," (Had the movie
been made post 9/11 a better name for the intrusive detectives
may have been "homeland security.") find an eyelash
of Vincent's and throughout the rest of the movie he struggles
to evade and outsmart their attempts at genetic testing.
Gattaca addresses many of the issues raised by the Code
of Georgia and California Civil Code, most notably privacy of
genetic testing. In Gattaca it is illegal for companies
to hire based on genetics, but it is widely accepted that the
practice goes on anyway. Vincent puts it best when he says that
in the future they have "discrimination down to a science."
Vincent's interview with the company consists of a pin prick
to his thumb. With one drop of blood Vincent is hired, or more
accurately Jerome is hired. Gattaca makes it clear that
even if it is against the law to discriminate because of genetics,
people will still find a way to do so. This is an easy premise
to accept since in today's world programs like affirmative action
are needed to keep people from discriminating, and even then
they are inadequate. Perhaps one day affirmative action will
not depend on the color of one's skin but instead on one's genetics.
Vincent comes from a Benjamin Franklin/Rocky Balboa school of
thought and with good ole' fashioned American hard work and ingenuity
he is able to prove that there is no gene for the human spirit.
In one of the final scenes Vincent confronts his brother, Antoine,
who is now a detective working on the Gattaca murder. Antoine
still does not respect his brother and the two have one last
sibling "pissing contest" by playing a game of chicken.
After the two have swam so far out that they can not see the
shore Antoine begins to get worried and asks Vincent how he did
it, how he beat him when they were kids. Vincent replies, "I
never saved anything for the way back." Eventually, Vincent
beats his brother once again and finally earns his respect. The
drive behind Vincent's intestinal fortitude is further explained
when he tells his love interest (who is genetically engineered
but suffers a minor heart problem that will not allow her to
go to space) that "they have you looking so hard for any
flaw; that after awhile that is all that you see." Vincent
however, does not dwell on his flaw, he is fixated on his dream
of making it to space. In the end Vincent's drive for his dream
inspires many others, including Jerome who thanks Vincent for
sharing it with him.
The plight of Jerome is symbolic in that no matter how genetically
perfect we are designed to be, we can never escape fate. After
winning a silver medal in swimming Jerome attempts to kill himself
but instead he becomes paralyzed. Jerome refers to his life as
"the burden of perfection." In his final scene he commits
suicide in an incinerator while wearing the silver medal. Interestingly,
Jerome is arguably one of the more human characters in the movie
- he drinks too much, smokes too much, is moody and in the end
he destroys himself. Jerome was programmed to handle everything
except for failure and when he fails, he reverts to a life that
more closely resembles humanity. He becomes obsessed with helping
Vincent reach his dream and through watching Vincent overcome
his failures, Jerome finds a purpose in what he views as his
failed life. Yet, in the end he kills himself and serves as one
of the more disturbing aspects of this movie. He does not find
the strength to live through Vincent; he only finds strength
to finish what he had failed at previously - suicide. (Thus Jerome
comes from the Sylvia Plath school of thought - substitute an
incinerator for an oven.) I believe that Jerome's suicide shows
that behind perfect genetics will always lie an imperfect human,
ready to surface as soon as the façade of perfection cracks.
Sadly no act except suicide could show how human Jerome is -
it is an act that only humanity is capable of performing.
Much like Vincent's world, our society may soon be told of our
genetic pre-dispositions and what we can and cannot accomplish.
If we dwell on this, as many of the characters in the film do,
then we will lose what is truly most human about us, our ability
to rise above what we are capable of accomplishing.
While less intellectual on the surface, Twins still raises
some important issues on topic of genetic discrimination. The
story revolves around a genetic superman (a Nietzschian Zarathustra
if you will) Julius, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his
twin brother Vincent, played by Danny DeVito.
DeVito's Vincent is horny, deceitful,
cynical, weak, unintelligent, and his life is controlled by the
quest for money. Meanwhile, Julius is innocent, strong, intelligent,
not driven by money and not as preoccupied with sex. (Although
this may be because he is a virgin for 4/5 of the movie and is
unaware of what he is missing out on). While both characters
are technically "genetically engineered" it is clear
through Julius's isolated upbringing and Vincent's big city life
that Vincent is the personification of humanity, while Julius
is separate from humanity.
The doctor who was behind the experiment that produced Vincent
and Julius informs Vincent that he is the "crap left over"
from Julius and berates him about his inferiority. It is a sad
and telling moment in the movie as Vincent realizes that he is
a collection of what the doctor felt were the most undesirable
characteristics a human could have. Nevertheless, when Julius
confesses that his life is "all theory - no practice"
we see that humanity still has something to offer the world that
genetic perfection cannot provide. Vincent is able to overcome
his "weaknesses" with his life experiences. If Vincent
had not been forced to struggle throughout his life he never
would have been able to survive. Vincent's strength is reminiscent
of Charles Bukowski, who once wrote that the worse thing that
could happen to a young poet would be "a rich father, an
early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything
well." Bukowski recognized that without pain and failure
one would have nothing to offer to the world of poetry. Likewise,
it is clear that Vincent would have nothing to offer to the world
if he had not endured such a tumultuous life.
Throughout Twins, Julius and Vincent are shown having
the same idiosyncratic habits (i.e. scratching their butts in
unison). This shows the inescapability of not only ones family
but of ones humanity. No matter how "perfect" of an
upbringing Julius has had, he still has an indefinable similarity
to Vincent. Both characters can sense when the other is in trouble;
it is not just the more intelligent Julius who is capable of
this sixth sense but Vincent as well. The two are tied together
no matter how separate people have tried to keep them. The movie
ends with the Twins' mother saying, "I just can't get over
how alike they are." Thus in the end despite all the genetic
engineering, the "worst" of humanity is no different
than the "best" of it. Science is unable to separate
the two into separate spheres.
Gattaca's Vincent and Twins' Vincent offer two
different views of how humanity will be able to survive the advancement
of genetics. Gattaca's Vincent offers an American in the
truest sense of the word; cut from the same stone as Fredrick
Douglass, Rudy and Oprah. He shows us that there is no gene for
the human spirit and that with enough heart we can reach the
loftiest of goals. Twins' Vincent is in stark contrast
in that he does not compete with the genetically perfected, he
merely has different strengths. Twins' Vincent is a product
of the Beat generation. He does not deny what makes him human
and he does not suppress his lusts for women, money and booze.
Instead, he embraces them and teaches us that experience can
never be genetically engineered.
As genetic engineering progresses and humanity is forced to look
at what defines us, these movies show that we are much more than
a collection of genes. We are an imperfect, indefinable life
form who without faults and shortcomings would cease to be human.
The more conscious of this we are as a society, the more apt
we will be in deciding how to use the powers of genetics.
Author's Note: If you still doubt the possible influence of these
movies, it is important to consider that Arnold Schwarzenegger's
involvement in Twins coupled with his current position
as governor of California could possibly cause Twins to
influence the legislation of a state at the forefront of technology.
Posted July 15, 2005