Intelligent Design: Biopunk and the Utopian Body

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Whenever I’m asked about my chosen genre, I tend to say drama and “occasionally” science fiction. But I realize, I find myself only grudgingly admitting to writing sci-fi only because my true genre is speculative fiction. Speculative fiction (another SF, as a friend an I have often discussed) tends toward the scientific side simply because it is a recent trend that the rapid exponential development of technology has enabled humanity to fulfill its dreams while simultaneously facing its fears. But in actuality, SF can cover all genres. It’s all about the “What If?” that every writer chases.

In this case, what if there was a way to medically change what society perceives to be a disability before a person has a chance to live with it? How would that affect our definition of disability? What if that definition included sexuality and science developed a way to “cure” being gay? What if it could “cure” being black or Jewish or anything that doesn’t align with the dominant majority’s perception of normal?

What if it didn’t even go that far – what if it was just simply to give a person a stronger heart or longer lifespan? That’s the topic at the crux of one of my favorite films on scientific speculative fiction, and a pioneer in the genre known as “Biopunk” – Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film Gattaca.

Gattaca, along with AI: Artificial Intelligence and Blade Runner are films that I looked at frequently when drafting my own script “Archetype.” I found these films useful for the ways in which they engaged with ideas of classicism and the social divisions and hierarchies that are created when technology is introduced (and in some cases misappropriated) to solve problems. These films, along with Niccol’s more recent 2011 film In Time, all present unique interpretations of a world overrun by biological technology.

At the heart of these films (and my own screenplay as well) is the quest for what I refer to as the “utopian body.” Simply put, this is the body that through careful design and engineering, is perfect in every single way. If we’ve really done our jobs right, the body should have the ability to transcend the limitations of human life and become immortal. In Gattaca, this means genetically altering human embryos in such a way as to eliminate all presence of disease and illness. In In Time, perfection means a 25-year-old body that can never age or die, as long as one can acquire enough time. But like many Utopias, the actualization of this perfection reveals a sinister trade off.  These films aren’t about the celebration of “perfect” bodies, but the subjugation of imperfect ones.

I’ll start with Gattaca. In the “Not-So-Distant-Future,” parents visit their local geneticists to choose various traits for their recently conceived (but not yet implanted) children. It starts simple: gender, hair and eye color, special talents — but then becomes a little more complex. Doctors often take the liberty of eliminating “unfavorable traits” — susceptibility to life-threatening conditions, myopia, obesity… until the parents are left with a child that 1000 attempts at natural reproduction would not create.

But this child is not our hero in Gattaca. Our hero is Vincent, a “God child,” created the natural way without any genetic tampering. As such, Vincent is forced to live a life second to that of Anton, his perfectly engineered brother, known as a “Valid.” Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut, but soon learns that for someone of his biological stature, the “only way he’ll be able to see the inside of a space ship, is by cleaning it.” Determined, Vincent finds another way. He meets Jerome – a Valid and former swimming star. However a mishap has left him paralyzed from the waist down. By mutual agreement, Vincent assumes Jerome’s identity and with little effort is able to attain a position with Gattaca, a space exploration company.

[From this point forward in the film, Vincent is known as “Jerome” and Jerome is known by his middle name, “Eugene”]

Both Gattaca and In Time illuminate a disturbing future that reduces the human body to commodity. But ironically so. The perfectly engineered body in Gattaca becomes so highly prized and valued that the mind ceases to matter. When “interviewing” for the coveted position of an aerospace navigator, Jerome need only provide a sample from his physical body to prove his qualifications. However, the specimen required doesn’t have the essence of blood, the elegance of hair or even the vitality of sperm. Instead, Jerome is instructed to urinate on command in front of a lab technician who makes a habit of complimenting him on his “equipment.”

 

 

 

 

 

There is little glamorous about the Valid life in Gattaca. These superior humans didn’t have much of a journey between the test tube and the laboratory. Living life at the height of potential means to be judged, scrutinized and reduced to a series of mathematical probabilities and equations – none of which, as Niccol asserts, can quantify the human spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

Even Eugene is reduced to a life in his cave under the staircase, supporting Jerome’s ascent to the stars. He darkly refers to himself as Jerome’s pincushion – his days of swimming glory gone and replaced with a life of providing blood, hair, urine and skin samples to the man living under his former identity.

 

 

 

 

 

Whereas destiny and fate are determined at conception for the inhabitants of Gattaca’s world, for the characters of In Time, fate and destiny are still much larger mysteries, as the future is never guaranteed.

In the same way that Gattaca’s bodies are transformed into commodities, the same becomes true of In Time’s, but to a more frightening extent. Life itself has become the new currency. For reasons never fully explained, the powers that be in this Not-So-Distant-Future have decided to alter the human body so that aging abruptly ends upon reaching age 25. However, upon turning 25, a countdown clock begins and if a person is unable to acquire more “time” within 1 year, they will drop dead. As a result, time is the new currency — men and women work for minutes, not dollars and pay for bills with pieces of their lives.

I admit, the logic of this universe sounds like the sort of made up rules that govern children’s games on summer afternoons. And while I appreciate the imaginative concept, the world as Niccol presents it is filled with several logistical plot holes. How is this regulated? Does an hourly wage take into account the actual time spent working? What’s the point in charging interest on a loan? Why are we doing this in the first place? (Niccol finds a way to cheekily avoid answering these questions by having our hero declare in his opening monologue that he doesn’t have time to find out why the world is the way it is). Let’s go with that.

Will Salas, a poor factory worker from Dayton (called “The Ghetto”), lives hour to hour, collecting and spending minutes as he can to get by. After receiving a large time donation from a mysterious (and suicidal) benefactor, Will relocates to the wealthy Time Zone known as New Greenwich. There he meets Sylvia, the pampered daughter of a greedy time lender who has eons in his reserves and plans to live forever. However, when the “Timekeepers” discover timed-out dead body of Will’s benefactor, they get suspicious. Will and Sylvia take off on the run and along the way work to dismantle the entire time-based system.

Regardless of the logical issues, the parallels to Gattaca are just as compelling. Again the inherent value of the natural body is exploited, inflated and eventually degraded as a result of “perfection.” This entire world looks beautiful — young and old live within lithe, slender bodies that never have to worry about slow metabolism or receding hairlines. But there is more than just vanity behind this world.  A new class system develops, not based directly on biology but based on the accumulation of time which in turn yields immortality. But this is not ideal either. As Sylvia puts it, “The poor die and the rich do not live.” If you could live forever, would you take a chance on doing anything that could result in your accidental death? The wealthy minority live in prisons, having added more years to their lives but afraid to add more life to their years.

Having a blast…

Throughout both films, Niccol urges his audience to accept the body as inferior to the intangible quality that makes a person a person, which I’ve referred to as the “spirit.” Niccol hates the body. He desecrates it, fragments it and even murders it to get this point across. The inciting incident for each story is the investigation of a death by mysterious circumstances. Even in death, the body still contains an enormous amount of influence. However, Niccol soon loses interest in the death mysteries and directs his audience to focus attention on the characters who inhabit these realms and to neglect our preoccupation with the physical. Once we’re able to look beyond the body we find true significance. By the end of each film, the original murder mysteries are barely relevant.

Instead, the resolution we receive is the attempt to return the body to its rightful state. In In Time, Will and Sylvia continue their humanitarian work, stealing time from bank vaults and returning it into the circulation for all to use. In Gattaca, the ending is a little more pensive.

As Jerome climbs aboard the shuttle headed for space, he reflects on the theory that every atom of the human body was once part of a star, and therefore a journey to space is a journey home. In that case, his return to space can be read as a correction as Jerome returns to the womb of space to make things right in his own brand of perfection. A similar argument could be made for Eugene’s actions after bidding Jerome goodbye.

As I wrap up this post, I’m keeping an eye on another Andrew Niccol story, The Truman Show. Although of a different genre with a much lighter tone, echoes of Niccol’s early exploration into the concept of body as commodity are apparent. Truman Burbank lives his life unaware that he is the subject of his own lifelong reality show and that his every move has been recorded and broadcast to eager television audiences. Truman’s thoughts, dreams, and desires come second to the purpose for which he was conceived: to entertain simply by existing.

In exploring the deleted scenes on my Gattaca DVD (and reviewing the script), I discovered a “coda” which lists the names and ailments of some of history’s most recognizable figures who may not have been born had gene altering technology been available at the time of their conceptions. The film lists Abraham Lincoln (Marfan Syndrome), Albert Einstein (Dyslexia) and Stephen Hawking (ALS) among the figures. But the statement seems unfair – these people certainly could have been born, but possibly without the conditions described above. The real question is, would “perfect” health have made a difference in their contribution to the world? A question like that is of course unanswerable but as the films suggest, perfection leaves no room for improvement and the danger of having everything is never wanting anything.

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