Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ghettos in Gattaca and In Time

While I initially saw many common threads in the characters of Gattaca and In Time, the setting of the stories were clearly exploring different issues.

Both worlds seem to be a world not too different than our own in the not too distant future, only with a twist that zero's in on a relevant topic.

In 1998 Gattaca premiered to a world that was close to unraveling the human genome. Decoding the basic building blocks of what determines an individual's potential raises many uneasy questions about ones sense of agency in the world. The biological twist in Gattaca imagines a world in which ones life potential is determined at birth based on genetic makeup. If you (or more importantly, your parents) lack the important genes, you're out of luck.

In Time speaks to a world where the population is rapidly growing in an increasingly unstable global economy. In Time has an economic twist that literally makes the hours of ones life the global economic currency. Everyone is given one year of life when you reach the age of 25; After this you must earn minutes faster than they are spent. Once you're out of credits, it's game over.

A biological issue vs. an economical issue.

Then I stumbled across this bombshell when reading The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World:
"There is another big difference between nature and finance. Whereas evolution in biology takes place in the natural environment, where change is essentially random (hence Richard Dawkins's image of the blind watchmaker), evolution in financial services occurs within a regulatory framework where - to borrow a phrase from anti-Darwinian creationists - 'intelligent design' plays a part." - Niall Ferguson Pg. 356
I sat up and reread this paragraph as the setting for both movies were pulled into alignment.

Notice that the "big difference between nature and finance" has been eliminated in Gattaca. The random selection of genes has been reduced to a precise (read: constricting) regulatory framework.

On the surface the difference is biological vs. economical, but when you reduce the setting in both movies to the fundamental mechanics at work, they share the same common denominator.  

Both movies are exploring the self-determining nature of humanity through the use of regulatory frameworks (for better or for worse). To elaborate, Niccols seems to be exploring:
  • How humanity self regulates, manipulating social frameworks in order to ensure and control their destinies. (Genetic/Economic)
  • The systematic injustices of the framework instituted by those playing God, even trying to become God. (Perfection/Immortality)
  • Parents who chose to give birth to a child knowing they will be on the wrong side of the regulatory framework and are destined for a mediocre life of limited potential. (Often time the social frameworks determines your potential at birth, eliminating self-agency)
  • Children born into the wrong disposition have severely limited mobility. (Born with ghettoed genes or into a ghettoed neighborhood/"Time Zone").
  • How those who benefit from the framework think they are succeeding in their pursuit of perfection but are really losing their humanity (Embodied in the films by the disillusioned member from the elite who supports the protagonist and eventually commits suicide)
  • The cost is paid by those who don't benefit from the framework, consequently having their humanity crushed (Embodied by the plight of the protagonist)
  • How these new rules and regulations in the framework are disadvantageous to previously good traits (Intangible attributes, such as determination, fortitude, courage loose value in a rigid social framework)
In both cases we see clearly how this regulatory framework creates ghettos.
While in Gattaca the genetic walls are intangible; they are just as real as the quite tangible "Time Zone" walls of In Time. In both cases a suffocating ghetto is created - a ghetto in which the protagonist is determined to break out of.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Commonalities between "Gattaca" and "In Time"

UPDATE (11/15/11) - Since writing this post I had a big breakthrough that should be read first. I was able to zero in on the common denominator that links the social backdrop in both films.

This past weekend I saw In Time. This was one of the few movies I had been anticipating in 2011. The anticipation was on the sole basis of it being written and directed by Andrew Niccol.
Andrew Niccols Freshman film was also one of my favorites; Gattaca.

Gattaca first captured my imagination after watching it in my high school biology class. I have seen it a few times since, with increasing enjoyment and appreciation every time.

In Time isn't Oscar material (I already have my pick), but it was an enjoyable movie if for no other reason then that Niccol closely followed his original recipe used in Gattaca.
Spoilers are present in the following analysis (for both movies, especially if you have seen one and plan to watch the other).

This "recipe" implies that both films share an overarching theme and also specific plot elements.

Common Synopsis:

  • A man dreams of a life with greater significance than what the constrictive privilege based society he is born in to allows. 
But this shared synopsis is only scratching the surface. There are far more specific commonalities between these two movies. 
Commonalities in Plot
  • The young adult male protagonist finds himself doing mundane work at the bottom wrung of a heavy handed privilege based society.
  • However he dreams of reaching the stars (both metaphorically and quite literally in Gattaca).
  • His reach is limited, through no fault of his own, but simply because of the unprivileged disposition that he was born in to.
  • He meets a disillusioned individual from the privileged class who becomes his champion, equipping him with the necessary resource to break through the barriers (both metaphorically and quite literally in  In Time) between the masses and the privileged.
  • After providing the necessary resource to the protagonist, the champion commits suicide.
  • There is an individual who shares a common root with the protagonist, but has entered the privileged ranks. Ironically he ends up enforcing the divide in the social system.
  • This enforcer of the status quo is quickly on the case of our aspiring protagonist who is challenging the system.
  • The protagonist's passion and drive catches the attention of a woman who is well established in the privileged class.
  • The protagonist acquires a retro futuristic convertible (In general the preferable mode of transportation in these societies are black or silver retro-futuristic electric cars) which he will drive to a lavish dinner party where truths about his previous identity causes the gathering to be disrupted by the enforcer.
  • The enamored woman eventually discovers his true place in the social order. After wrestling through this truth she loves him despite, or even because of it. She becomes a co-conspirator in his effort to disrupt the system.
  • He is eventually successful in reaching the stars through a combination of luck, perseverance, wit, and most importantly through the assistance of his champion.
After reflecting on all the commonalities, that which makes the two movies unique becomes more apparent. There is a key difference in the plot between Gattaca and In Time, and it comes down to how the protagonist chooses to resist his predetermined lot in life.

Difference between Protagonists:
  • Gattaca - He studies, infiltrates, and subverts the system from the inside, providing a model of inspiration for others who feel trapped. He is mature, thoughtful, responsible, methodical.
  • In Time - He initiates a direct affront to the powers that be, mainly using brute force, resulting in instability and chaos en-masse. He is reckless, naive, confused, and short sighted.
But our protagonist is not an isolated variable in the social system. In fact, he would be nothing but a drop in the river of the unprivileged masses if it were not for the influence of his champion.

When we see the divergent character of the protagonist in both films we must consider the cause and effect of the divergent character of his champion. When we do so it would seem the the crux of the story is the manner in which the champion supports the protagonist on his journey.

In both cases our champion equips the hero with the resource needed to break through the privileged barrier. However the relationship in which this occurs couldn't be more different.

Difference between Champions:
  • Gattaca -  He is present and sacrificial. A coach/mentor who takes the time to teach the protagonist along the way. In the lowest moments of the protagonist's journey he is there to encourage him to stay in the fight and keep going.
  • In Time - He is hopeless, surrendered, distant, and after equipping him with the necessary resource to break through he is never present.
Juxtaposing the two champions clearly explains the unique difference we see in each protagonist who is set in such a similar plot.