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Question: Analyse how the audience was encouraged to respond to a character for a particular purpose.
“Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit” is a reminder served in Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca. In Gattaca society, genetic modification has become the new normal and posed a new form of oppression where ‘valids’ who are genetically engineered are therefore socially accepted. Vincent Freeman, an ‘in-valid’, is desperate to defy all odds and prove his worth in society by impersonating ‘valid’ Jerome Morrow. Vincent’s relentless ambition, especially in defeating his ‘valid’ brother Anton in the swimming race scenes, shows the audience how “there is no gene for the human spirit.”
Vincent was an inspiring character as he encouraged the audience to see it does not matter how we are born but who we become. The three “chicken” scenes in the film are where Vincent and his brother Anton race eachother to see who can swim the furthest out from shore without “chickening” out. Vincent was a “faith birth” so his parents relied on God (or chance) for his genetics, resulting in many of his health conditions. In contrast, Anton was born into ‘valid’ status as he was genetically engineered as an embryo. Despite his supposed inferiority, Vincent is adamant on achieving his dream of going to space and working at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation.
Niccol crafts the first chicken scene to encourage the audience to respond to Vincent by sympathising with him and recognise how he (and other invalids) are seen as inferior. The scene begins with a mid-shot of the two brothers as children (which is why a sepia filter is present to create a sense of nostalgia) playing “blood brothers” where Vincent initiates by cutting himself with a shell, but when he passes the shell to Anton for his turn, a close-up reveals Anton’s disgusted facial expression as he shakes his head to decline Vincent. Throughout history, blood has been associated with sacrifice especially in religious rituals. In this scene, blood serves as a symbol of the sacrifices Vincent must make in order to be socially accepted. In contrast, Anton’s refusal to sacrifice his blood shows us how ‘valids’ like Anton do not need to sacrifice in order to succeed. We then see the brothers play “chicken” for the first time in the God’s eye view shot of the swimming race. We see Anton is comfortably leading in pole position while Vincent is further behind, persisting as he swims through seaweed. Anton seems to have a clear path as he swims whilst the murky seaweed water is only in Vincent’s direction. The seaweed represents the obstacles ‘in-valid’ Vincent will face in his journey to succeed in a discriminatory Gattaca society. We then see a close-up of confident Anton swimming further away as he yells “coward!” at Vincent, Anton’s snide dialogue does not receive a verbal response from Vincent. Instead we are shown another close-up, except this time of Vincent, as he looks up at the sky. Vincent does not dwell on his loss to genetically engineered Anton as that is expected, instead he remains concentrated on his one and only dream - to go to space as an astronaut. Although most brothers in our society have some sort of sibling rivalry, it is clear that the competition between Vincent and Anton is actually rooted in the ethical issues of genetic discrimination. Niccol presents Vincent as the underdog to evoke our sympathy but also to garner our support for him and his unwavering determination - a quality that could not be replicated in Anton through genetic modification. We as a society must not idealise genetic modification since human resilience as admirable as Vincent’s cannot be manmade.
The second chicken scene marks a turning point in Vincent’s journey and encourages us to see how it is in our human nature to try and prove people wrong. Niccol still presents the scene with the same warm sepia filter as the young brothers are teenagers at this point. In the eye-level mid shot of the siblings standing next to each other at the beach, we see Vincent take off his glasses - a sign of one of his many physical flaws. Then a high-angle shot reveals the boys swimming through clear water, with no seaweed this time, but more importantly Vincent is swimming side by side with Anton. In addition, a musical motif increases in pitch and pace to make us feel as if heartbeat is fastening with it and force us to feel Vincent’s adrenaline rush with him as he overtakes his genetically superior brother. Moments later, we are shown a close-up and low angle shot of Vincent saving a struggling Anton from drowning in the ocean. A stark contrast to how ‘in-valids’ and ‘valids’ have been portrayed so far in the film, Vincent narrated this scene as “the moment that made everything else possible.” Vincent who had nothing to lose and everything to gain managed to defeat his brother, a valid, for the first time. Finally he is given proof that he has the potential to achieve his dreams. We learn from Vincent that we should not become accustomed to the limitations imposed by society but instead embrace the challenge to prove them wrong through our human will - a choice all humans despite their genetic differences are capable of making. We cannot make change in our society if people become accustomed to discrimination instead of being determined to prove against it.
Lastly, Vincent’s final swimming race with Anton encourages us to question the ethics of genetic modification. By this point, they are both adults and now detective Anton has caught Vincent for his deception. The last ‘chicken’ scene begins with a wide-shot of the nighttime beach, more specifically the dark green stormy seas, combined with a dark key lighting to create a sense of danger and suspense. We then see a close-up of Vincent who’s confidently afloat despite the dangerous conditions when he says “you know how I did it Anton? I never saved anything for the swim back!” We learn from this dialogue that the reason why Vincent defeats Anton is because genetic modification cannot produce a gene for the human spirit, which Vincent admirably displays even in the greatest of adversities. Then a high-angle shot is shown of the brothers as Vincent swims towards Anton who is almost drowning in the choppy waters, though Vincent is looking up at his sky signifying his single-mindedness on his dream to reach for the stars and succeed against all odds. Although for most gene editing seems like an exciting prospect, through the character of Vincent, Niccol encourages us to think differently or at least consider the potential risks. Of course any parent would be tempted by CRISPR gene editing to ensure their child would be ‘physically perfect’ like Anton but why should that mean people like Vincent are ignored despite their natural indifference and human determination? If we want to avoid living in a dystopian world, we cannot punish people for something as natural as their genetics. Instead, as gene editing becomes popularised, we should accept as a society that the only person someone is destined to be is the person they themselves choose to become. Overall, Niccol crafts Vincent as a character with admirable determination to understand that although it is in our human nature as curious intellectuals to pursue technological advancements, our human bodies have limitations but our human spirit is boundless.