Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous is a cautionary sci-fi film set in the near future, taking current trends and extrapolating them into a narrative that seems both plausible and worrying, in just the same way as the Black Mirror series does, but what really springs to mind watching Advantageous is Andrew Niccol’s far superior Gattaca from 1997.
I suppose you could describe the film as High Concept- it envisages a future of high population, the resulting pressure on resources, wealth and jobs and how this impacts ones position in society and self-worth. Advances in robotics and AI have left jobs scarce, and positions in schools, the quality education which facilitates upwards mobility in society, also marginalised by resources and cost (there’s a neat wall-advert running in one scene that highlights subscription to a lottery for school places). Its all very interesting and intellectually plausible, in just the same way that Gattaca was when it examined genetics and eugenics in future society when science can shape ones place in that society if one only has the wealth.
Advantageous is the story of a single mother, Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) whose successful career as a spokeswoman for a medical research company is brought to a halt when her bosses decide that she is simply too old to represent the company any longer. At once this crushes any hopes she has for her daughter, as without her salary Gwen will be unable to finance her daughters place in her new school, damning her to an uncertain future. The only lifeline offered to her by her clearly coldly manipulative boss Isa (Jennifer Ehle) is for Gwen to be a spokesperson and test subject for the companies latest initiative, in which customers who are either old or ill can have their consciousness placed into young fit bodies, presumably genetically engineered. The technology is not quite the boon it claims it to be -one of Gwen’s other superiors, Fisher (James Urbaniak) warns Gwen off, admitting that it is deeply flawed and quite dangerous, but Gwen is backed into a corner as without her job and her salary she will presumably lose her apartment and her daughter will fall out of the education system that her future depends upon.
Where Advantageous comes unstuck is in its execution- the budget for this film was obviously very low and the film-makers struggled to realise its ambitions. With its fairly ideal vision of the future its hard to see the nightmare horror that Gwen is trying to avoid- where are the poor huddled disenfranchised masses without jobs, education or food? While we are told that the woes of the world are due to population and pressure on resources, we only see empty streets and few poor and disadvantaged people- everything we see is very idyllic and calm and pleasant, rather undermining the central premise. Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) had a similar theme and while limited by its own budget it nonetheless portrayed population problems with far more success, depicting crowded streets and apartment buildings where the homeless majority sleep on the stairs and in corridors. The ills of its world are clear at all times, we witness it clearly. We don’t see any of this in Advantageous, and indeed the inferior quality of its CGI cityscapes prove so poor it probably could have done without them completely, the imagery pulling one out of the film whenever it segues to them- likewise the police drones that are shown in the sky are no doubt intended to suggest an intrusive authority and a possible police state run by AI technology but its all to little purpose as far as the narrative is concerned. While its perhaps commendable that the film doesn’t feel the need to explain everything -we see explosions suggesting a terrorist underclass rebelling against the status quo but it isn’t expanded upon- it really suffers when its only graphic scene of the ills of society is a cloaked, presumably starving girl sleeping in a flowerbed. Hardly a terrible dystopia.
Which is a pity because the cast are fine and the central storyline is involving, albeit undermined by awkward pacing and troublesome editing; the latter particularly an issue in an uneven last third in which the film pretty much falls apart just when it should be reaching for its intended emotional and intellectual finale (the film rather spluttering to a halt without any real resolution).
Clearly there are allusions to ageism, and abuse of corporate power and its ability to sell deeply flawed technology to further its own wealth and position. The public are just consumers to be lied to and taken advantage of without any reproach from any authority, which has a familiar ring to it. The films narrative is clearly endeavouring to explore these subjects but its execution is really so deeply flawed its hopelessly spoiled. Gwen’s desperation and love for her daughter is clear and their bond is convincing with emotional resonance that goes nowhere, ultimately: it fizzles out in its last third without any tension. Its a real shame because Gattaca is one of my favourite films and timely, cautionary sci-fi films should be welcomed in a marketplace and genre dominated by superhero antics and empty-headed bubble-gum blockbusters. Sometimes films manage to succeed in spite of budgetary limitations but its inevitable that sometimes they are badly undermined by them, and sadly such is the case with Advantageous.
Advantageous is streaming on Netflix