Advantageous proves disadvantaged

advJennifer 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


The Monstrous Mr Christie

place10 Rillington Place (Blu-ray)

I first saw this film many years ago, I think on a late Friday-night showing on tv. It made quite an impression on the young me, as it is a powerful film, and its lesson that authority is not always right and that justice can be flawed resonated with me greatly. Now that I’m older and watching it again for the first time in decades, it’s clear to me now just how deeply disturbing and nuanced, and commendably restrained, this film really is. Quite a few times during this film I considered how it might well turn into an exploitation horror flick in other hands, and often thought how favorably it compares to Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film much more popular (infamous?) than this. I’d say this is one film that really gives Psycho a run for its money, and really makes me wonder what kind of film Hitchcock would have fashioned from its horrifying story and its sexual undertones.

The real chills about this film is that pretty much everything it depicts is true, and indeed it is the real titular house of horrors that features in the film’s exteriors, which adds a real sense of morbidity and uncomfortable voyeurism to the film. This last point in particular is quite pressing, because all the way through I felt like a voyeur witnessing the events that really transpired. The film is, as I have mentioned, remarkably restrained- the murders themselves are shown in a dramatic, almost documentary detail but in no way exploitive, and the perverse acts that Christie acted upon the women’s bodies is only hinted at. The depths of the viewer’s imagination is ample enough to ensure that we know he was an utter monster.

place2Its interesting that the film doesn’t attempt to explain why Christie did what he did, his past and how that might have created the monster he became. He is always an enigma, a twisted mystery in the guise of an ordinary, bald bespectacled man, and this makes him all the more horrifying. There is no comforting explanation, no reason why. At least in Hitchcock’s Psycho we have a psychiatrist who offers an explanation, simplistic as it might seem,  for Norman Bates madness. 10 Rillington Place offers no such comforting explanations for its monster, no sense of rational reason. Christie is a monster who looks and acts like that guy in the bus queue or walking a trolley through a supermarket. His almost quaint English ordinariness is frankly chilling when you consider what he was capable of and he remains one of cinema’s truly ‘great’ monsters. We cannot truly know him or understand him- he simply ‘is’, and that’s truly scary.

Richard Fleischer’s direction is assured and more sophisticated than one might expect for a film such as this. It looks utterly authentic, with great moody photography and dismal, claustrophobic sets that display just how grim post-war Britain was. The acting is sublime throughout the cast, and it is no small measure of John Hurt’s remarkable performance as the doomed simpleton Timothy Evans that he steals the film from under Richard Attenborough’s nose. Attenborough’s performance is subtle and quite disturbing- there is clearly all sorts of horrible stuff going on behind behind those eyes as he looks at the women he preys upon.

This Blu-ray disc is the first Indicator release I have bought, and it promises much for the quality of future releases this year (although my wallet might well blanch at the prospect),  with several Hammer and Harryhausen films among them. The picture quality is tremendous,  really showing off the photography and the textures of the sets and clothes (though maybe Attenborough’s make-up isn’t done too many favours at times). Two commentary tracks and a number of interviews are the highlights of an ample set of supplements. I’ve sampled a good half-hour of John Hurt’s track and he is a disarming and self-deprecating talker, with great recollections of making the film, the personnel and the true events that inspired the film and the book it is based on.

All in all, a great package and a great film that deserves all the praise it gets. That the BBCs recent three-part dramatisation failed to equal it, and indeed perhaps even got mired in being too faithful to how the film tackled the story, speaks volumes about how good this film really is. Its dark and morbid and moody and horrific. Mr Christie is a monster who will haunt us for many years to come.