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‘Gattaca’ and the digital afterlife

‘Gattaca’ and the digital afterlife


When the body is reduced to information, it becomes numbers, percentages, probabilities, and outcomes. It exists only in a digital archive. In many science fiction tales, humans leave behind their physical shells for a computerized afterlife, as in Transcendence or Cowboy Bebop. But in Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, this afterlife doesn’t begin after the demise of the body. Instead, the body, while still animated, is replaced by its biometric readings.

In the film, society has split in two. “Valids” comprise the privileged class: genetically selected and tweaked by doctors, they are safe from heart failure, short-sightedness, stunted lifespans, and other ailments and imperfections. “In-valids” make up the underclass: naturally conceived, they are likelier to suffer early death and disease, and are thus proscribed from important schools and jobs. Both groups, however, are enslaved to their genetic data. Samples of their biological traces – urine, hair, blood, and so on – are used to identify them, and admission into any institution or company requires the collection and analysis of these traces, in order to link them to the corresponding personal profiles stored in computer servers.


Vincent, an in-valid who dreams of space travel, rises to the top ranks of the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation with the help of Jerome Eugene Morrow, a paraplegic with exceptional genes who is willing to donate his traces, for a price. Vincent sloughs off dead skin, trims his hair, and thoroughly cleans his desktop at the Aerospace Corporation, erasing all evidence of his passage. Meanwhile, everywhere he goes, he plants pieces of Jerome, like hair and skin, to simulate the presence of his donor. Both men look nothing alike, but appearance has become irrelevant. The body, in this future context, exists only in its traces, in what it leaves behind. 

No one is the owner of his or her body. In-valids with academic, social, and economic pretensions must assume a more respectable identity, while valids must accept physical attributes predetermined by medical professionals. In-valids, at least, can claim to be unique and fortuitous configurations of genetic material, even though they are often forced to forsake their own selves. As for valids, they are crafted according to an ideal and desirable image, based on what human makers believe is closest to perfection. In a sense, both Vincent and Jerome inhabit foreign bodies, so it is no wonder that they trade them like suits, property stored in closets or shelves. Indeed, Jerome deposits great amounts of urine, hair, skin, and blood in fridges, so that his traces outlive him and carry his name into posterity – or into the readouts of computer monitors.

Gattaca is not altogether pessimistic, however. Thanks to computerized abstraction, men and women can easily swap identities. After all, no real transformation is necessary, only the distribution of appropriate organic leftovers. With their bodies in flux, Vincent and Jerome – and also Irene, Vincent’s co-worker and girlfriend – find purpose in less tangible identifying marks: dreams, hopes, memories, ideas, friendship, and love. All of these have the power to slip from body to body, to be shared by or communicated between two or more individuals, and to hover between people, in transit, nomadic, able to wander all the way into space.