More often than not, a science fiction story detailing the creation of a groundbreaking new scientific leap will transform into some sort of cautionary tale. Humanity's knowledge exceeds humanity's wisdom, men shouldn't attempt to play god, robots can't be trusted, etc. The most compelling thing about Jennifer Phang's Advantageous is that it fuses that familiar cynicism with an almost Star Trek-like optimism. Yes, the world is going to hell. Yes, our exciting plan for the future probably has horrible consequences. Yes, life is full of irremediable pain. Still, if we can retain our empathy and our humanity, we might be okay, right?
The story is set in the near future – I'm not quite sure how near, but let's just say that everything looks pretty familiar save for the flying vehicles and unusual gadgets we occasionally see. The scientific world is on the verge of some exciting new advances, but life is difficult for many people: unemployment is at an all-time high, and the cost of living has skyrocketed. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, Star Trek: Generations) is a spokesperson for a major biotech company, but her relatively comfortable life is upended when the company informs her that she's outlived her usefulness. Despite Gwen's attractiveness and wealth of scientific knowledge, the company wants someone younger and fresher.
It would be hard enough for Gwen to take care of herself without a job, but she also has her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) to consider. A good education is the only pathway to a bright future, and the good schools are obscenely expensive. Gwen tries to find another job, but no one can find a place for her. She seeks the charity of her friends and family members, but no one is able (or willing) to help her. Finally, she starts taking a hard look at the only option she has left: volunteering to be a part of a cutting-edge “consciousness transfer” process her former employers have developed. Gwen will have her consciousness placed in a younger, more attractive body (Freya Adams, Making Revolution), resume her old position and collect the money required to pay for her daughter's education.
2/3rds of the film's running time has passed before we reach the big transfer, and I suspect that's partially because the film knows that Kim's performance is its greatest asset. She does affecting, nuanced work as a woman confronted with a series of difficult, unexpected decisions, and the humanity she brings to her role makes the thought of losing Gwen – or at least Kim's physical embodiment of her – a little more difficult. Once the transfer is made, there's some uncertainty about how much of the original Gwen has been left intact. Are those irrational feelings rooted in the fact that Adams looks so different, or is something really missing?
The questions Advantageous poses are interesting, but the film has a tendency to push its most blatant sci-fi elements to the background. This is partially due to budget concerns (this a small indie flick, so the shots of gleaming vehicles soaring across the city skyline are brief and distant), but mostly because Phang is more interested in the emotional conflicts her characters are facing than she is in the reasons those conflicts exist. Nearly every character in the film (save for the heartless corporate executive played by Jennifer Ehle, Contagian) is coping with some form of deep-rooted pain, and Phang's suggestion that kindness is a big part of the solution never feels trite or oversimplified. This is an optimistic film, but it comes by its optimism honestly. At its best, it reminded of me Alfonso Cuaron's masterful Children of Men – another sci-fi flick that feels fundamentally hopeful despite its strong undercurrent of despair.
At its worst, Advantageous is curiously flat. Some of the smaller supporting players struggle to deliver natural-sounding line readings, and that may be due to the fact that the dialogue (co-written by Phang and Kim) often feels a little stiff. Plus, even at a modest 91 minutes, the film feels oddly padded, as if a short film has been stretched into a feature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that's exactly what happened: the film was originally shot as a half-hour short and was later expanded. There's a superb hour-long installment of a sci-fi anthology series here, but as a feature, the whole thing feels a little too insubstantial.
That aside, this is a worthwhile little sci-fi film that's just unique enough to set it apart from a number of other similarly-themed works. Phang's direction is graceful, and her ability to create a convincingly futuristic world on such a tiny budget suggests an impressive resourcefulness. It certainly ought to be the start of a career renaissance for Kim, who suggests here that Hollywood has been wasting her talents for quite some time. If you're willing to forgive the film's awkward moments and occasional dead air, there's some rewarding, thoughtful material to explore.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2015