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You need to watch the most philosophical sci-fi dystopia on Netflix ASAP

“We now have discrimination down to a science.”

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Sci-fi movies are no stranger to dystopia. Whether it’s set-dressing for a post-apocalyptic adventure or a warning of a possible future, a society in collapse is a fascinating backdrop.

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But while the ruined cityscapes of movies like I Am Legend and Children of Men are undeniably dramatic, some of the most compelling dystopias are much closer to our own reality.

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At a glance, Gattaca may not look much like a dystopia at all. Robots haven’t taken over; aliens haven’t descended to turn recognizable monuments to ash.

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If anything seems wrong with the world of Gattaca, it’s that it’s too clean — nearly every location is sterile and scrubbed clean. The people, too, are cold, impersonal, and efficient.

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This is the dystopia of Gattaca — not a world falling into chaos but one suffocated by order.

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In Gattaca, babies are for the most part not made the good old-fashioned way. As part of a widespread eugenics program, they’re designed to be genetically perfect, free from disease, and any personality trait deemed undesirable.

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Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) doesn’t have these advantages. His genes were left to chance, and that left him with a heart condition that’s drastically shortened his lifespan and labeled him “in-valid” — the cruel moniker given to people born without genetic intervention.

Along with his poor health, Vincent’s status means he’s subject to genetic discrimination, including being rejected from his dream job as an astronaut with Gattaca Aerospace Corporation.

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To follow his dreams, he turns to an underground broker who provides him with the DNA of a genetically engineered “valid,” by way of blood, urine, and even skin samples to pass the nonstop genetic tests required to get by in Gattaca’s society.

Even when he begins dating another Gattaca employee, Irene (Uma Thurman), Vincent has to conceal his true identity or be punished for the crime of not lowering himself to society’s warped expectations.

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As seen in Gattaca’s opening, that means Vincent has to remove all traces of his own loose hair and dead skin cells, scrubbing pieces of himself away every morning to be replaced by his new identity.Sony Pictures

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That false identity belongs to Vincent Morrow (Jude Law), a genetically optimized champion swimmer left paralyzed by an accident.

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Despite all his advantages, Morrow was still subject to the whims of fate, and he’s one of few people who seem cynical about the movie’s genetic determinism. Even then, it’s not because of the system’s injustice, but because his privilege didn’t earn him the comfort he was promised.

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When a murder occurs at Gattaca, Vincent, Irene, and Jerome are all caught up in the heightened security that follows. But like the space launch that Vincent dreams of, the investigation is just a backdrop for the movie’s human drama.

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In the end, Gattaca isn’t about dismantling an oppressive state but surviving within one. There’s no action or flashy special effects to speak of, just a handful of great actors making a moving parable of what could feel hokey in less capable hands.

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That’s part of what makes it so timeless. There will always be people eager to judge others by the false, tidy categories they’re sorted into, and people fighting for the dignity they’ve been denied.

Gattaca is streaming now on Netflix.

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