The Moral of Gattaca (1997)

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Sterile waters have no fish, and pedants fail to see the big picture

Maxims of the Sages

Personally, I consider the film Gattaca (1997) to be among the finest films ever made. The relevant story, beautiful demeanors, moral message, retro aesthetic ambience and foresight perfectly weaves together to form a thought provoking and classic film that has stood the test of time.

For those who have not seen it, the film centers around the determined and mentally gifted protagonist Vincent Anton Freeman’s quest to overcome a world rampant with genetic discrimination—where the best embryos are genetically enhanced for a price (and the imperfect ones discarded) ; a not too distant future where job interviews consist of only a blood test to peek inside the applicant’s genetic profile. The best jobs go to the “valids” (i.e. those whose health and genetic profile are favorably above the threshold) while the rest (such as Vincent) are identified as “invalids” due to medical conditions or hereditary illnesses etc., and are relegated to the underclass of menial laborers.

I won’t go further into the plot details as reviews, clips and synopsis are freely available on the internet. I strongly recommend watching it.

However, I feel the film excellently embodies the moral maxim cited at the beginning: “Sterile waters have no fish, and pedants fail to see the big picture”(1)

Life is not about intolerance or pedantic prejudice and discrimination, but of broadmindedness and discernment. Success and sturdiness comes from using different people in accordance with their inclinations. To allow people’s strengths to shine while making allowances for their weaknesses.

In the Qunshu Zhiyao Volume II (3), it is recorded that even wastrels and scoundrels when given a post that suits their talents could become surprisingly constructive people.

On the other hand, pedantic selectiveness or partiality begets only one thing: Extinction.

According to Liao Fan’s Four Lessons (2):

Narrator: Next, we will see why Liao-Fan has no children. Liking cleanliness is a good thing, but it can become a problem if one becomes obsessive about cleanliness. There is an old saying, “Life springs from the dirt of the earth and water too clean often harbors no fish.”

Liao-Fan: The first reason why I feel I do not deserve a son is that I am overly attached to cleanliness, resulting in the lack of thoughtfulness for others…

Narrator: …harmony is the cultivator of all life.

Liao-Fan: But I have a quick temper and easily become angry….

Narrator: …loving-kindness is the basis of reproduction and harshness is the root of sterility.

Liao-Fan: I overly guard my own reputation and cannot sacrifice anything for the sake of others.….”

Thus harshness, pedantry, pride, discrimination, over selectiveness and prejudice will lead only to extinction through attrition. We must emulate Heaven and Earth, which is used as a metaphor to describe the all-embracing and boundless in Eastern thought. The petty mind will sacrifice a lot of positive potential that could otherwise have bloomed into wondrous fruits had the chance merely been bestowed.

Therefore, I believe  we ought to be tolerant in our lives, and wisely shepherd the strengths of others and skillfully tolerate their weaknesses. We should shun pedantry and consider the big picture.

To finish off, I would like to recommend Alfred Brendel’s passionate and sublime rendition of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No.3, which is the same piano piece used in the movie’s beautiful concert scene:

This blog post is released into the Public Domain


My Public Domain posts on

(2) Liao Fan’s Four Lessons 

(3) Ancient Eastern Philosophy

(1) My free and Public Domain translation of Maxims of the Sages

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