The Elegance of Quiet Science Fiction Films

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 29, 2019

Advantageous (2015) is the kind of quiet science fiction film I love. It was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote it with Jacqueline Kim, the star of the film. Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix and I have no memory of it ever coming to the theater (even though it has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes rating). I watched this movie with my friend Annie. She thought the show was only okay, but I loved it. But then my favorite science film is Gattaca. I prefer quiet science fiction movies without chases, explosions, and dazzling special effects. Annie prefers more action.

Advantageous is set in the near future where AI are taking jobs from people. Advantageous is about Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) who is the spokesperson for a rejuvenation corporation who is being fired for looking too old. Gwen is desperate to get another job to keep paying for the expensive schooling for Jules (Samantha Kim), her daughter. In this future, the unspoken belief is its better to give jobs to men because if too many of them were unemployed it would cause civil unrest. Gwen feels Jules can only have a future if she has an elite education, and she’s willing to do anything give her daughter a future.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but let’s just say that Advantageous explores a number of popular current science fiction themes in written science fiction. The film is set in an unnamed city with a breathtaking skyline of ornate skyscrapers that are occasionally hit by terrorist explosions. The citizens of this future passively ignore these attacks as a powerful government deals with them without alarm. We are shown other flaws in this tomorrowland just as quietly. This is a utopian world that is beginning to reveal hairline cracks.

One requirement of enjoying quiet science fiction films is reading between subtle lines. It helps to be well-versed in written science fiction. Gwen is given a decision to make, a “Cold Equations” or “Think Like a Dinosaur” decision. If you don’t know these classic science fiction short stories you might not appreciate the impacts of her choice. The ideas in Advantageous have been explored in great detail in written science fiction. That makes me wonder if movie-only Sci-Fi fans will pick up on the finer points of this story.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film than me:

Ms. Phang, who wrote the script with Ms. Kim, throws a lot into her movie — ideas about maternity, identity and technologies of the female body swirl alongside nods to the French New Wave — without always connecting the pieces. Eventually, a picture emerges that at times suggests a strange if alluring mash-up of “Stella Dallas” and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Phang has a way with spooky moods and interiors, and as a performer, Ms. Kim makes a fine accompanist, though she’s tamped down too much. It’s a kick to see how effectively Ms. Phang has created the future on a shoestring even if she hasn’t yet figured out how to turn all her smart ideas into a fully realized feature.

I thought Advantageous was fully realized. It set up all the science fictional speculation and then dealt with them in a satisfying way. It just didn’t cover everything explicitly, but quietly implied what we needed to know. Maybe that’s why this movie is an unknown gem. Too many filmgoers want action and obviousness. I watched the film last night and I’m already wanting to see it again. I’m sure there are little delights I’ve missed. Quiet films are perfect for meditation, they keep unfolding with additional viewing and contemplation.

JWH