The motif of rubbish is used to symbolize the plight of the 'invalids'. Before adopting the identity of Jerome Morrow, Vincent worked as a janitor, cleaning the Gattaca Institute. Numerous close-ups on piles of rubbish and litter are used to symbolize Vincent's low social status, because he was not genetically engineered. Furthermore, during the murder investigation towards the middle of the film, once Vincent has begun to work as an astronaut for Gattaca, Caesar (the head janitor) is seen collecting rubbish. When asked what he was doing, he replied "Just trash, Sir." This is a clear example of how trash is symbolic of the elitist view of the invalids. As they are not genetically superior, mainstream society viewed them as useless and expendable.
The trash motif is also evident at the end of the film, when the 'valid' Jerome Morrow burns himself in the trash incinerator. Here, the trash motif is used to emphasize the irony that the man who was guaranteed success ended up with the worst fate, as his accident and subsequent immobility meant that he was viewed as expendable.
Images of water appear throughout the film. These include the shower in the opening scene, the beach where Vincent and Irene fall in love, and the ocean where the swimming scenes take place, as well as numerous close-ups on glasses of water throughout the film. Water symbolizes transition and transformation, and hence is suitable for a film focusing on the protagonists' journey from oppression to success. It also represents Vincent's transition in social status, from 'invalid' to 'valid' when he adopts the identity of Jerome.
Water is emphasized during crucial moments of change throughout the film. In the initial shower scene, there is a panning shot of running water while Vincent scrubs hurriedly at his skin. This represents his attempts to rid himself of any traces of his inferior DNA, so that he can better 'transform' into Jerome. The flashbacks to the swimming competition between Vincent and Anton are key moments in the film. While the first flashback illustrates Vincent's inferiority, as he does not beat his brother, Vincent's success in the second flashback encouraged him to pursue his dreams, as he realized that even the impossible is attainable through determination and willpower. Finally, the beach scene represents the transition in Vincent and Irene's relationship, as they go from strangers to lovers.
The main characters names are highly symbolic, raising ideas regarding scientific potential in the future. Vincent's name is drawn from the Latin verb 'Vincere': to conquer or win. This symbolizes his ultimate success, despite all odds. His last name, Freeman, also indicates his triumph against adversity. This is because, historically, 'freeman' was the title given to a slave who, through their achievements, became an emancipated citizen. In this way, Vincent's name is symbolic as it represents his journey and the film's focus on the importance of the human spirit.
Jerome's name is also significant as it represents science and the future. This is significant, as it is through Jerome's eyes that we clearly see the struggles faced by the genetically engineered elite. Jerome's first name alludes to 'Genome', the genetic material of an organism. Similarly, his middle name Eugene symbolises eugenics, that is, the practice of improving the genetic quality of the human race. In this way, his name represents the foundational practices of the society, as Gattaca explores a society based on the act of genetic engineering to achieve perfection. His last name, Morrow, is also representative of the futuristic setting, as it echoes the connotations of 'tomorrow'.
Cross and infinity sign
In the film, the cross is used to represent the invalids, while the infinity symbol denotes the valids. These images appear on the computer screens when a person's DNA has been tested. The cross is used to echo the biblical and religious connotations of the crucifix, as the invalids are referred to as "faith births." While religious imagery is often positive, the cross stands as a constant reminder of the individuals' genetic inferiority and weakness. This is highlighted when Vincent comments "I'll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God's hands, rather than her local geneticist." Thus, the religious symbol indicates their low status in society.
By contrast, valids are represented by the infinity sign. This symbolizes unboundedness, and hence, the endless potential of the genetically superior. This indicates the mindset of the society, as valids are destined for perfection and success.
Skin, nails and hair
There are numerous close-ups and extreme close-ups on skin, nails and hair throughout the film. This can first be seen during the opening credits at the very beginning of the film. Here, the background is a sterile blue. While the cast member's names appear on screen, a microscopic extreme-close-up of nails, skin and hair occurs. First, the tips of finger nails fall from above. They are so large that they take up the width of the screen, and fall with a deafening thud. After this, eyelash follicles are dropped, slowly falling and settling on the table. They are so big that they look like ropes. Next, skin flakes sprinkle down, appearing like snow flakes. This immediately foreshadows the film's exploration of scientific ideas and the society's obsession with DNA and genetic material. The camera pans to an extreme-close-up of Vincent shaving his face and the hair follicles and skin cells that fall when he does this. There is then a close-up of him rigorously and throughly scrubbing his skin with a coarse brush, before burning the accumulated particles in an incinerator. This image appears numerous times throughout the film, as these small pieces of genetic material represent Vincent's inferiority and status as 'in-valid'. The film also contains numerous close-ups of Jerome's skin and hair follicles, for example, in the scene where Vincent scatters them around his workplace area to make it further seem that he is Jerome.
Through these intense images of small, genetic particles, the film challenges the notion that humanity is determined by its DNA. Rather than portraying individuals as a sum of their collective parts, Gattaca shows that it is determination and drive, rather than genetic standing, that makes an individual great.
The staircase in Vincent and Jerome's apartment is spiral-shaped, representing the shape of the double-helix model of DNA. This is a focal point of many scenes, as it symbolizes the society founded upon genetics and scientific ideals. It is also a powerful symbol for life and humanity, key themes explored in the film.
As well as this, the spiral staircase in the mise-en-scene of Jerome's appartment symbolically represents the parallel between Vincent and Jerome. This is most clearly seen towards the end of the film, when Vincent stands at the top of the stairs and Jerome is placed at the bottom. This illustrates that the two have essentially 'become' each other - while Vincent adopted Jerome's identity, Jerome fell further into disrepute. The image of the spiral staircase is so central to the film that it was used in promotional posters and is now on the DVD cover.
The staircase also represents human drive and determination. This can be seen when Jerome has to climb the staircase. He has to pull himself up slowly, which is incredibly difficult as he is paralyzed from the waist down, nonetheless he manages to do so. This is the first moment in the film where Jerome strives to achieve something, as he is typically characterized as jaded and cynical.
Allegory for the human spirit
The film celebrates that Vincent rose, against all obstacles, to achieve success. As he was a naturally conceived 'faith-birth,' Vincent struggled in a society which measured an individual's self worth through their genetic code. Although Vincent was destined to a life of menial labor, he was able, through his will and determination, to live his dream of traveling through space. The film celebrates his success, dedication and perseverance. The essential message of the film is that the human spirit is the most commendable aspect of humanity, and the source of man's greatness. This is captured in the film's tagline "there is no gene for the human spirit," suggesting that character and integrity are more important than genetic programming. Gattaca suggests that the meaning of life is not found in our genes, but in our ability to fulfill our ambitions.
Gattaca Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Gattaca is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.