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‘Gattaca’ Isn’t Simply Science-Fiction, It’s Middle School Science Curriculum

For many millennials, when it came to learning about genetic engineering, their teachers ditched the textbook and turned over the classroom to Ethan Hawke and Jude Law instead

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

I was 11 when my sixth-grade science teacher jammed a copy of the 1997 dystopian sci-fi film Gattaca into the VCR and hit play. The opening sequence features blood, needles and bags of piss. Ethan Hawke furiously scrubs and scrapes his skin clean inside a metal capsule full of mist and blue light. It was all so creepy and compelling that for years afterward, I assumed that Gattaca was off-curriculum content, that my teacher, Ms. Kott, had gone rogue that day.

But it turns out, Ms. Kott was one of many teachers in the early aughts who found Gattaca to be a great way to open up a discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering. “I started showing the movie to students back in 1999 or 2000 soon after it came out on DVD,” says David A. Kirby, who is now the department chair at Cal Poly’s Interdisciplinary Studies in Liberal Arts. Meanwhile, another former middle school teacher tells me that he didn’t show the whole movie in his class, but he did show the parts “that introduced the concept of starting families with the ability to manipulate their offspring’s genes.”

For those unfamiliar with the film, it depicts a future wherein parents are encouraged to decide the genetic makeup of their kids before birth. Not everyone has access to the technology, however, and those who aren’t genetically enhanced are discriminated against. The main character, Vincent Freeman (Hawke), is one such “invalid” character who was conceived outside of the eugenics program. His dream is to go to space, but since he has a congenital heart defect, he isn’t permitted to apply to the space exploration program — the titular Gattaca.

When he gets the opportunity to pass as “valid” by using donated hair, skin, blood and urine samples from former swimming star Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), Vincent is assigned as navigator for an upcoming mission. But once an executive at Gattaca is murdered, the subsequent investigation puts Vincent’s plan in jeopardy.

Despite being a box-office dud — the movie, though critically acclaimed, made just $12.5 million against its reported budget of $36 million — Kirby explains that Gattaca doesn’t buy into the trap of genetic determinism, which is unlike other films that tackle genetic engineering. “In similar movies, a mad scientist changes humans that go on to become monsters,” he tells me. “There’s always this notion that those genetic changes significantly alter the individual and change the personality or whatever the case might be. So they’re still always buying into the determinism.” 

For its part, Gattaca tries to break out of the black box constructed by genetic scientists who portray a world dominated solely by genes. “Gattaca doesn’t deny the importance of genes, nor does it fault the technology itself,” Kirby continues. “Instead, the film warns of the problems that arise if we believe that humans are nothing more than their genes.”

Whether that message landed with middle school and high school students is debatable. My colleague Alyson Lewis remembers watching Gattaca in high school biology, but doesn’t recall exactly why her class was watching the movie other than the fact that it “vaguely related to science.” “We also watched Outbreak in that class,” she says. “I think the teachers were just showing us whatever so they didn’t have to teach. And I thank them for that.”

The same was more or less true for this redditor: “Watched [Gattaca] in high school bio when the teacher had to take a sick day. Watched Hackers (the one with a very young Angelina Jolie) when the comp-sci teacher had a sick day. I think that quasi-educational movies were the go-to for unexpected sick days at my school.”

But Aria, who, like me, also saw the movie in sixth grade, appreciated being trusted to watch something that he felt was a little bit over his head. “I don’t remember what we discussed exactly,” he tells me. “But I remember being really confused and not really knowing which side of the debate I was on.” 

Twenty-five years after its theatrical release, Kirby doesn’t screen Gattaca for his classes anymore — though he still appreciates its message. “I just assume that everyone’s seen it already,” he says. To uncork discussions around genetics and ethics these days, he prefers to share the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers about a set of identical triplet brothers adopted as infants by separate families.

Still, he’s the first to admit that it’s no Gattaca. “When it comes to the notion of human genetic engineering,” he concludes, “Gattaca is pretty unique.”