Hollywood's Vision of Genetic Design
by Jason Dikes
In the mid 1970s, bioengineers working in the field of genetic design placed a voluntary moratorium on certain aspects of genetic research, particularly those areas that dealt with human DNA. Then in the 1990s, a sheep named Dolly stood the scientific world on its head and the subject of genetic engineering became hot news again. Until Dolly, genetic engineering was the plaything of science fiction films, and two films Gattaca and Blade Runner have offered provocative examinations of genetic manipulation.
In Hollywood, the idea and consequences of tampering with human genetics has been a staple of science fiction and horror films stretching back to the 1930s with characters like Dracula and the Wolfman who possessed the ability to change at a genetic level. Most of these older films were often well-written, but lacked good special effects. Since the leaps forward in special effects made at the end of the late 1970s, these films have had more effects than plot. In short, most of the films were bad and the plot usually went something like this: a young, idealistic scientist, through an accident, discovers how to clone human life, or create life in a petri dish which then matures quickly. When he realizes the horror that this could unleash on mankind, he decides to destroy his research. At this point, a supervisor, either a senior colleague or a government lap-boy, steps in, performs the experiment and unleashes a terribly evil creature. Take heart, this person is always the first to die. The creature then gets out and kills a whole bunch of people and lots of stuff explodes. By this point in the film, the young, dedicated scientist, upset at being sent home early or fired, has, by now, gotten drunk and copulated with his (pick one of the following)
D. bar girl
E. total stranger
and passed out. When he returns to work the next day, he sees the destruction, hears a wild rumor of a creature from some hapless security guard, and decides that he must destroy the creature.
A hunt takes place, then some kind of battle and the creature, much to the audience's disappointment, dies before killing everybody in the film, as well as the producer, the director, and especially the writer. Lame, isn't it? Do not be dismayed, there do exist two films that take a responsible look at what genetic engineering may do to sanity and to the human spirit. They are Gattaca and Blade Runner.
The more recent of these two films is Sony Pictures Gattaca starring Ethan Hawke, and Uma Thurman, which was produced in 1997. In Gattaca, a boy, Vincent, an "in-valid" portrayed by Ethan Hawke, discovers he is different from his younger brother, Anton portrayed by Loren Dean. Anton, a petri dish baby, possesses the perfect genes for success. Anton is strong and tall and has perfect eyesight, Vincent is weak and sickly and wears glasses which signals his genetic inferiority to both the society he lives in and the audience. Anton earns his parents constant praise, encouragement and admiration, while Vincent is coddled, pitied and kept close to home by his parents. When, during a race, Vincent saves his perfect younger brother from drowning, he realizes that strength does not always come from the body.
Determined to revolt against his predestined future of mediocrity, Vincent leaves home to pursue his dream of traveling into space, leaving Earth and all its oppressive regimentation and stultifying assumptions behind. Vincent enlists the aid of a DNA broker significantly named German who sells false identities to the genetically inferior. German sets Vincent up in a partnership with Jerome Eugene Morrow, portrayed by Jude Law, a once superior genetic specimen paralyzed in an accident who is willing to sell his prime genetic material for cash.
Thanks to Jerome's tragedy, Vincent has a chance of assuming the identity of Jerome, a man destined for greatness. It is not easy. To succeed, Vincent must fool a society capable of reading a person's identity and fate with a drop of blood, a flake of skin, or a speck of saliva. He must hide every one of his imperfections by wearing contact lenses to alter his myopic eyes, and by enhancing his genetically inferior height with painful and torturous surgeries. In order to be prepared for a world of constant I.D. testing, Vincent keeps pouches of Jerome's urine for impromptu urine tests; he keeps sachets of Jerome's blood glued to his fingertips for daily blood tests, and sprinkles Jerome's skin and hair samples everywhere he goes to keep up the ruse. Such ploys are mundane, but astute examples of moving the film forward without the big budget special effects of science fiction.
Despite all these measures, the chances against Vincent's success are monumental. Even if he can fool the machines with Jerome's body fluids and skin cells, Vincent is genetically incapable of reaching the physical and mental heights of a space navigator. Nevertheless, he quickly rises through the ranks of the Gattaca Corporation and is chosen as one of a select group who will explore the outer boundaries of the solar system. He also begins a love affair with Irene, played by Uma Thurman, a beautiful coworker obsessed with her own minor heart defect, who believes Vincent is the superior specimen he impersonates and adores him for it. Against incredible odds, Vincent is on the edge of achieving the perfection demanded by his society.
Then, a week before the mission is scheduled to blastoff, the director of the space agency is murdered and everyone in the program is a suspect. Suddenly, the workplace is swarming with police, headed by Detective Hugo, portrayed by Alan Arkin. An extensive search of the premises by a zealous investigator reveals the presence of an In-Valid's eyelash near the murder scene. Drawn into the murder investigation as an insider, Vincent has much to hide and everything to lose. As a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase ensues, Vincent must use every one of his natural-born attributes to keep the law at bay, the truth of his identity under wraps and his dreams within reach.
Written by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote one of the most imaginative scripts in recent years for The Truman Show, Gattaca focuses on the possibilities of what genetic engineering may do to the resiliency and determination of the human spirit. In a world in which a person's success can be made to order, the triumph of the will over physical limitation is systematically and drastically diminished. In the future as Niccol presents it, there are no Helen Kellers or Stephen Hawkins. Instead, a rigidly enforced caste system insures success for those who are born into it. Such a system ignores, indeed prohibits, the achievements of the "inferior." In a way, genetic correction replaces racism as the abhorrent philosophy of the future.
Although Gattaca is a science fiction film, it is much deeper than most science fiction and what special effects there are appropriately exist in a secondary role to the plot. The story is reminiscent of the kind of science fiction that dealt with social issues found in the earlier works of Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and last, by Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick, like Andrew Nicol, represents the thinking mans science fiction with creative, bold, challenging writing. Viewers interested in science fiction films where visuals and art direction are heartstoppingly, but realistically utilized to develop thought provoking films can look no farther-or better-than 1982's dark science fiction thriller Blade Runner. The title for the film was purchased by the producers from William S. Burroughs, but Burroughs' work is not present here. In the film, the plot is loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Set in 2019, the Tyrell Corporation has advanced robot evolution
" into the NEXUS phase, [creating] a being virtually identical to a human, known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth, under penalty of death. Special police squads, Blade Runner Units, had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicants. This was not called execution. It was called retirement." (Blade Runner, 1982)
Because the Tyrell Corporation's motto for Replicants, "More human than human," is true, the only way to spot a Replicant is through their emotional response to a variety of questions administered by Blade Runners using the Voight-Kampff machine.
As the film opens, a group of NEXUS 6 Replicants led by Roy Batty, portrayed by Rutger Hauer, have come to Earth to meet their maker, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, portrayed by Joe Turkell. All Replicants have a life span of only four years and these Replicants are determined to gain more time. Rick Deckard, portrayed by Harrison Ford, is a former Blade Runner brought out of retirement to track the Replicants down. During the course of the pursuit, Deckard begins an affair with Tyrell's secretary, Rachael, who is a Replicant herself. One by one, Deckard hunts the Replicants down, but not before Batty manages to meet Dr. Tyrell, but fails in his quest for a life extension. Having failed, Batty is cornered by Deckard, but defeats the Blade Runner. In the final scenes, Batty, at the end of his four year span realizes the precious importance of life and spares Deckard. In a sense, the non-human has proven his ethical superiority over his creators. He has fully become "more human than human."
Blade Runner presents another potential danger to humans caused by genetic engineering; the possibility that we may one day build "humans" far better than ourselves. None of the human characters in Blade Runner exhibits the level of cunning or courage of the Replicants. They are shiftless, loathe to take any responsibility for their actions, and insulated from the realities of life. The one exception is Rick Deckard, which has sparked a debate among fans who have gained the film a cult status, as to whether Deckard is, in fact, a Replicant.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner is a visual treat not only for its excellent plot, but also for its gorgeous cinematography, production design, and intricate philosophical narrative. The film's art direction, visual effects, and cinematography were all nominated for Academy Awards in 1982. In that same year, the film won the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle Award. New viewers should be warned that there are at least two different versions of Blade Runner available. In 1992, a "director's cut" version was released which eliminated Harrison Ford's voice-over and restored the film's original intended ending. If the 1992 version is unavailable, the effect of this ending can be gained by stopping the film at the end of the last scene when the elevator door closes on Deckard and Rachael. This gives the film a grittier, less of a "they all lived happily ever after," feel.
For those who really want to explore Blade Runner's deeper subtexts and visual mythology, and as proof of the films' continuing popularity, there are several excellent websites that feature debates over the movie's meaning. The Official Blade Runner On-Line Magazine can be found at http://www.devo.com/bladerunner/blade_runner.html and serves as a general introduction to the film and contains many links. The extremely helpful Blade Runner FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) can be found at http://www.smartdocs.com/~migre.v/Bladerunner. One web site has logged all of the current essays and papers on Blade Runner and provides links to every known Blade Runner site. This site can be found at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/uwi/br/off-world.html/ and contains 94 links. A sampling of the essays, for example, "Thresholds of Splendor: Mythic and Symbolic Subtexts in Blade Runner" by James Pontolillo, "Is Blade Runner a Misogynist Text?" by Simon Scott and "Christian Symbolism in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner" by Dan Newland. All of the essays reveal the ways in which science fiction stimulates of the past, present, and future.
Despite the growing cult status of Blade Runner and the many issues that resonate within the film, only three books ably deal with the film. They include Paul Sammon's 1986 study Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Judith Kermans' 1997 work Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Scott Bukatman's Blade Runner, published in 1998 as part of the British Film Institutes Modern Classics series. Ignoring the ground covered by other essayists, Bukatman examines the importance of visuals in Blade Runner that Ridley Scott built into the movie. The author examines in depth the films art design, effects, and cinematography and relates the look of Los Angeles in 2019 to earlier films, particularly 1927's famous Metropolis. Special effects supervisor David Dryer was quoted in Bukatman's Blade Runner as saying, "Someday I want to take shots from Fritz Lang's Metropolis and shots from Blade Runner and run them back to back. Because there's an awful lot of Metropolis in Blade Runner."
Gattaca and Blade Runner both represent the dangers to humans from genetic engineering. Instead of focusing on the outward physical dangers like many science fiction films, these show the damage that can be done to humans inwardly, as well as raise ethical and moral issues worthy of serious debate. Not the least of such questions in the area of cloning techniques, is to what extent, if any, do humans have the right to "enslave" their own creations? The only way that those who value their freedom so much to "enslave" others is to create a caste system as rigid and deadly as any in history. By degrading others, the humans in the film degenerate themselves and become less than fully human. The imperfect beings, Vincent in Gattaca, and the Replicants of Blade Runner appear more alive, more conscientious, and certainly more determined than those around them. By playing God through the creation or perfection of physical life, humanity as represented in these films has slipped down the moral ladder. Both "in-valids" and Replicants are looked down upon and kept in place through either a rigidly enforced caste system or under penalty of death. Either way, they are seen as inferior by their creators, yet appear to be the only real humans in either film.