The Perfect Burden: Eugene’s Plight in Gattaca

Dylan Hintz

Film Genre, 403

Dr. Walker

The Perfect Burden:

Eugene’s Plight in Gattaca

“His credentials are impeccable. An expiration date you wouldn’t believe. The guy’s practically gonna live forever. He’s got an IQ off the register. Better than 20/20 in both eyes. And the heart of an ox. He could run through a wall. If he could still run.” This bittersweet introduction reveals the wheelchair-bound eugenic demigod, Jerome Eugene Morrow, played by Jude Law in Andrew Niccol’s 1997 science fiction piece, Gattaca. Pitching him as a commodity is the black-market trader, German (Tony Shahloub), whose words resonate with the supremacy and flawlessness desired by the inhabitants of Niccol’s universe. It is a world in which man is not created by God’s hand, but rendered as perfect as possible by Man’s science through the process of advanced genetic engineering. The near future setting of the film provides a place where, “the genetically enhanced should always perform better than the genetically unenhanced and genetic discrimination is justified” (Kirby 202). As a paraplegic within the generic context of this science fiction, Jerome Eugene Morrow embodies the thematic preoccupation of the scientific society’s failed ideal.

Born to be perfect but sunken into a life of self-loathing abuse, Jude Law’s character is a necessary counter to the main plot of the film— the character Vincent’s (Ethan Hawke) attempt to beat the discriminatory system of Gattaca. Though Eugene is perfection incarnate, his introductory shots ground him down to a human level, revealing an incredibly handsome man miserably confined to a wheelchair. From behind a pillar Eugene appears, as if he was hiding from sight in an attempt to conceal his shame. Niccol’s set shows Eugene surrounded by an empty room littered with empty liquor bottles, scattered around an unassailable DNA-shaped staircase, and finally cutting to a close up of cigarette smoke floating around him as if he was burning out of existence. In this setting, Jerome Eugene Morrow is “constantly reminded that he is unable to climb the DNA staircase to the upper floors. Both the wheelchair and the DNA staircase provide visual metaphors of Eugene’s inability to live up to his perfect genetic makeup…” (Kirby 205).

The character is miserable, and the high-performance, high pressure society which has given into its unchecked self-righteousness is to blame. A key role in Eugene’s tragedy is the eugenic method of achieving human enhancement through scientific selection, and how “…it is clear that a eugenics program cannot succeed unless genetic determinism is accepted as the true state of the world” (Kirby 197). In essence, the world of Gattaca has accepted the idea that a person’s genes will determine everything about them, and that “genetic inheritance is equivalent to predestination” (Kirby 202). In the film, determinism and destiny are clearly defined through genetics, and while Vincent says there is “no gene for fate,” the genes clearly lay out the most likely future for whoever is under the microscope. This future is ingrained into the very belief structure of the society itself to the point where genetics are the new ego, and any erring in the destiny of code can lead to abruptly tragic consequences. Hence, Eugene sits shamefully in his home, hiding away from the rest of the world, drinking himself into oblivion. His genetic ego crushed by one minor failing: being only second best.

There is a symbolic prop in the film that plays a key role in expressing Eugene’s personal strife within himself. The item is revealed in a scene where Eugene is preparing blood samples for Vincent— essentially draining his identity away. He wheels himself over to the mid-metamorphosis in-valid and pulls from his side the one shred of identity he chooses to keep with him: the silver medal he won during his final swimming competition. This is one of the few times where the camera shows Vincent and Eugene at eye level with one another, as it is a midpoint for both their transformations— the only time in which they are truly equals. Vincent himself lay crippled from a height altering procedure, half way through his transformation into becoming Jerome. With the realization that he is giving away his identity finally washing over him, Eugene confesses his deep-rooted shame to Vincent. He tells him that “Jerome Morrow was never meant to be one step down on the podium,” and goes on to reveal his bitterness towards the situation and the hand he has been dealt. This line clearly identifies Eugene as a victim of the second failing, as a man who has been prescribed his manifest destiny since birth, only to have it ripped away from him in an unpredicted twist of fate. Shamed by the second place, he “tries to commit suicide because he cannot bear the fact that he failed to live up to his scientifically predicted potential” (George 179). Merely paralyzed, Eugene keeps the silver medal as a reminder of his personal failure, not as a trophy. He keeps it as close to himself as he does his many bottles of alcohol, both acting as expressions of his spiritual disillusionment. His presentation of the medal to Vincent is a challenge: he asks him to do a better job at being him than himself.

Known primarily as Eugene while the main protagonist, Vincent, borrows his first and last names, Morrow’s crippled perfection is one of two tragic failings created within the world of Gattaca. The first issue is that “Among other consequences, this new form of propagation has created a new type of discrimination” (George 177-178), a racism-like prejudice known in the film as “genoism.” The un-enhanced “in-valids” like Vincent, who covet Eugene’s prospects, are immediately relegated to a lower class. This is detailed in the film when Vincent, heading for a job interview, passes through a doorway that is made up of hundreds of glass bumps, distorting his image into thousands of “cells.” Through this use of mis-en-scene, it is clear that no matter how good the sum of one’s parts may be, one microscopic error could shatter any chance for acceptance, as “Gattaca’s society magnifies the importance of genetic material, the smallest element of a human being” (Kirby 206). Genetic evaluation comes before personal evaluation, which is why Eugene would be perfect if not for his destiny-altering accident, and had he walked through that door, he would have been given the job without question. Needless to say, as an in-valid, Vincent does not get the job, and goes on to work as a janitor for the first act of the film. It is only after adopting Eugene’s genetic identity that he is able to move farther up his own destiny, as a “borrowed ladder”— the film’s term for someone who has stolen another’s genetic determinism.

The second equally devastating failing, applicable to “valid” beings such as Eugene, is that an unbreakable self-fulfilling prophecy through genetic determinism not only has the ultimate potential of destroying the human spirit, but even the man himself. Eugene’s characterization throughout the film demonstrates the danger of this second failing, as his paralysis not only cripples him physically for the remainder of his life, but because of his present less-than-perfect existence, his unmatched determinism also leads to his emotional and “spiritual” emptiness. Gattaca’s creed of the genetic destiny is a double standard, in that “the expectations put upon the genetically enhanced to live up to their genetics are almost as debilitating as the discrimination against the unenhanced…” (Kirby 203). Eugene and Vincent look out at the Gattaca building in one scene, as Vincent describes his dream of going not to the building itself, but to outer space or “up there” as he refers to it. In this shot, Vincent is also debilitated from a leg surgery, but is standing up right on crutches, while Eugene still sits in his chair. Eugene has fallen to his destiny— that because he is broken, there is no use in trying anything on his own anymore, and in this instance is represented as smaller and weaker than Vincent. Regardless of his genetic perfection, he is further from the stars than his un-enhanced partner in crime, and realizing this he surrenders Vincent the use of his first name. “If you’re going to be Jerome you better start getting used to it,” he states, shrugging off all the responsibilities of the “title” along with it.

The camera work and framing of the two characters contribute largely to their relationship, as well as aid in the portrayal of Eugene’s defeated character. In one scene, Vincent (now going under the moniker of Jerome) is going to go to Gattaca for his first interview, and requires a urine sample from Eugene. After noting that all the samples in the refrigerator are filled with an unacceptable blood-alcohol level shown in brutal close-ups of the word “no.” Vincent scolds Eugene’s self destructiveness as something that will ruin both their chances, and with Eugene’s body clearly no longer his own he finds that now not only does he have to sacrifice his name but also his personal habits for someone else’s dream. The framing comes into context when, notably, Vincent’s eye line to Eugene is that of a condescending angle, as he looks down on the “perfect” man. Eugene looks up to him, unable to be more than a helpless, scrutinized child by comparison. He looks up at Vincent in shame when asked if he wants to back out, as Vincent tells him “this is the last day you’re going to be you and I’m going to be me.” It would clearly be an unequal trade if not for the dominant subjugation Vincent is capable of commanding upon Eugene, wherein “Ultimately, Eugene comes to see that the unenhanced Vincent is better at being Eugene than Eugene himself” (Kirby 204). Eugene realizes that there is something about Vincent that makes him more powerful than the cursed life society has handed him, and at the same time realizes that whatever it is, he doesn’t have it.

The strongest tool the film uses to develop Eugene’s character is through comparison to Vincent. “According to GATTACA, then, the price paid for a genetically perfect world is the loss of the ‘human spirit’” (Kirby 208), wherein these simple shots composed of varying heights, eye lines, and power plays demonstrate how flawed one “perfect” person can become in a society that accepts nothing less than flawlessness. As the camera tilts up to follow a rocket, Eugene and Vincent follow its trajectory into the night, sharing the same dream, with only one of them actually owning it.

Eugene as a character in Gattaca is a tragic element to the story line: a promised prodigal son through genetic determinism who allows one minor upset in his destiny to control and crush his spirit. The overwhelming failure of the Gattaca society to accept its broken promises leads to his unending and inconsolable shame, causing him to embark on a path of suicidal self destruction even when he is told he could “live forever.” The breaking of the body and the spirit turn him into nothing more than a product for someone else to purchase in aiding their own dreams. As his “dreams” have been predetermined for him by society, they are far shallower than those created through a personal struggle such as Vincent’s, and therefore his existence is unfulfilling. By the end of the film, Eugene lends Vincent so much of his blood, urine, hair, and skin that he feels he is no longer needed, and thusly ends his own life through cremation, having realized that he is unable to live up to the standards placed on him by the eugenically controlled society. It is a tragic moment, as Vincent ascends to the stars, riding on another man’s identity, when Eugene accepts that he will never be good enough for the place where “Society’s ‘faith’ extends only to the reach and scope of its science” (George 178). It is a world in which he wasn’t born, but merely created, and it is because of the lack of chance that people like Jerome Eugene Morrow can never achieve true spiritual satisfaction. They will never have any further meaning to search for than that which is determined for them.

Works Cited

George, Susan A. “Not Exactly ‘of Woman Born’: procreation and creation in recent

science fiction films,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 28:4 (Winter

2001): 176-183.

Kirby, David A. “The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy

in Gattaca,” Science Fiction Studies 27, no. 2 (2000): 193-215.

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The Perfect Burden: Eugene’s Plight in Gattaca by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.