“That was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up, because who funds short sci-fi about women’s issues?” – Jennifer Phang, interviewed for Wired about Advantageous
So, I discovered this quiet, little gem of a film in the Netflix backlog.It was written about when it came out, but I, apparently, missed the hype. It’s a little film, with a small cast of characters, and a setting that feels like a brightly-lit version of the cyberpunk dystopian futures of the mid-1980s and 1990s. It began as a very short film, and was expanded. It makes an argument, I think, for the power of the small story. I was flipping through films, exhausted just considering the high concepts at play in the descriptions, with complex and violent dystopias and world on the brink, and stopped when I saw the odd title, and a director with whose work I was unfamiliar. The description of the film was a personal drama, a small scale, and human. It’s the kind of science fiction movie I miss seeing in the theatres. Movies like Gattaca or Contact or Robot and Frank that took, at the heart, not the spectacle and the violence and the terror of the future, but the way technology and change touches our lived experience, are largely absent in the era of Marvel and DC and the Disney Machine.
Stories are machines of emotion. Spectacle is a cheap way to reach the heart. Sometimes the axe is a fine tool to break through the metaphorical rib cage. But, the surgical precision of a scalpel is more of a healing thing. Each moment of this lovely film is carefully presented to be surgical. The opening scenes, with young girls dancing, celebrating their movement and joy at life contrasts with the stark and barren cities, devoid of the hustle of life. Where is everyone? There’s this huge cityscape, and only a handful of humans walking on the street, fishing at the river, or sitting at a small table, in a huge, empty room. They speak softly, lean in to each other, and share the secrets of the future. The story is about a working woman, Gwen Koh, a spokeswoman for a major medical technology company, and her daughter, Jules, who will only have a chance at a future in the terrible economy if she can go to an expensive elite school. To keep her job, and pay her daughter’s school tuition, she must become a customer of the very product of which she is a paid spokeswoman. That means the company wants her to download her consciousness into a new body in a painful process that will make her younger and more marketable, but the side effects of this early technology are devastating. Over the course of the film, she exhausts her possibilities, and must deal with the consequences of her choices for her daughter.
Ubiquitous AI is a background presence, said to be driving unemployment. During her job search, there is a surprising discovery that the “person” who is helping her look for work is an AI. It leads to a haunting exchange of words that seem to be a precursor both to the future of the world, and to Gwen’s future passing her life through into new technology.
Gwen: Drake, are you human being?
Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?
Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?
Drake: That is a definition of a human being?
Gwen: I didn’t know.
Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.
One of the most chilling moments in this film was when it was explained why women are more likely to be pushed out of work than men. “It’s safer for everyone,” says the male executive, with no irony or rancor. At first, it seems like an odd sentiment in a film about the future, and it makes one pause and cock their head. Yet, the film presents ubiquitous AI as a rising economic and political threat. It makes sense in this terrible, utilitarian, algorithmic way. Large numbers of disaffected men are very dangerous for organized society. And, algorithms carry the sexism of the society that programs them. It actually felt even more realistic upon reflection, like those moments in life we encounter sudden institutional racism or sexism and it feels wrong, but then, we realize, of course that’s how it would be. Of course, society of the future built upon the present would push older women out of work and keep the men busy.
In lesser versions of this powerful, spare story, violent men jump through skins with a casual ferocity. The technology is not examined deeply. It is not thought about. It is not given space to breathe and know. It’s hard even to talk about a film like Advantageous, because modern cinematic language in SF has skewed so heavily over the edge to spectacle, and to stories that appeal to a young male audiences and young male-centric stories. Jennifer Phang presents a powerful argument for the importance of female directors in SF, with scripts written by women, telling women’s stories.