It’s summertime again, and that means an uptick in movies watched and movies pondered.
A week or so ago, Rachael and I were both celebrating our ability to watch television since she was finished with her finals for the semester and bemoaning the fact that we were in between series at the moment. Craving something a little more unusual, we pulled up one of those magical Netflix channel lists that tells you how to find all kinds of weird categories on the streaming service, and we picked out a movie. The first one we picked, He Never Died, had an offbeat premise that simply failed to catch our interest after the first half hour.
Instead, we settled on a recent sci-fi movie called Advantageous about a career woman in the future who is trying to give her daughter a leg up in a world where a variety of factors have caused society to reverse course on granting women greater economic freedom. It’s a relatively complex cluster of causes, but the end effect that we see in the film is that women are being pushed out of the workforce and the two-parent nuclear family model is again becoming ascendant; this is significant because the film’s protagonist, Gwen, is a single mother. Gwen is presumably in her forties and ethnically Korean, and her career has been built on her ability to be the spokesperson of a large multinational medical technology corporation (it’s never discussed explicitly in the film, but I think we’re supposed to understand that as the public face of the company, Gwen acts as though she’s its chief executive while she takes her cues from the marketing department). Because of her age and her ethnicity, marketing decides to push Gwen out in favor of a younger, “more universal” (read: white) representative as the company is getting ready to ramp up buzz for a new procedure that can transfer a person’s consciousness into a younger, custom built body. At the same time that Gwen’s losing her job, she’s also trying to gather the money necessary to pay tuition for an exclusive prep school to which her daughter Jules has been accepted (joining this school carries with it the necessary benefit of being plugged into a network of social elites who are engineering a microcommunity for their children that will theoretically flourish in the depressed economic climate).
All of these factors come to a head with Gwen choosing to undergo the procedure herself in order to maintain her job (again, it’s implied that the company’s marketing department manipulated Gwen into this decision so they’d be able to highlight the new procedure). It’s a decision with severe implications for Gwen’s own sense of identity; the body she picks out is of a twenty-something woman who appears to be of Indian descent (I tried to look up the ethnicity of the actress who plays Gwen following the procedure, but I couldn’t find any definite information), which directly removes her own sense of connection with her daughter, and (as is revealed late in the film, though it’s a reveal that is pretty easy to suss out earlier) she dies in the transfer process, leaving only a copy of her memories in the new body. On pretty much every level Gwen gives up her own identity for the sake of giving Jules a chance at a good future (just to make sure we don’t forget how terrible everything is for women and children, we’re reminded periodically that less fortunate kids often turn to prostitution as a means of income).
It’s hard to choose a starting point for working through what’s being explored in Advantageous, because the film is just so dense with ideas about how the future might play out. Gwen’s situation is a fascinating and depressing one, because we learn pretty late that she goes into the procedure knowing it’s the end of her own consciousness, and that knowledge isn’t outweighed by Gwen’s need to provide for Jules. The commentary on how older women are devalued economically because of the way we tie their value exclusively to their appearance is sharp; despite the emotional cost of letting herself die in order to be replaced a younger copy who won’t be as strongly bonded to Jules is massive, but it isn’t enough in the face of the possibility of being left destitute with no safe future for her daughter.
The pacing of the movie is a little on the slow side, and the resolution, while generally satisfying with its implication that Jules and the new Gwen are able to find a sort of equilibrium in their relationship, is still incredibly bleak. This is a personal story set against an indisputably dystopian backdrop. The fact that we can almost feel okay with Jules’s future gets deliberately undercut by the knowledge that most of the children who exist in marginal scenes (there’s one where Gwen encounters a homeless girl trying to sleep in a garden bed in the middle of the city) are still without recourse. Gwen succeeds by sacrificing everything, but not in a way that serves to improve the status quo; if anything, she reinforces the strength of the social oligarchy by buying Jules’s entrance into this elite group.