Bodily Function

A longer human lifespan doesn’t mean we’ve gotten any better at dealing with death, just at delaying the need to directly accept it. What eventually forces that need is that continuing to live means continuing to age; aging means inevitably bearing witness to the body’s decrescendo, its gradual deterioration and betrayal. When we treat visual signs of age as physical defects, it’s because those signs serve as reminders that all bodies will eventually die.

Advantageous (dir. Jennifer Phang, 2015) shows a future that has recoiled from the prospect of aging. This attitude is a constant companion to Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) and her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim); they’re stalked by its ever-growing implications. Jules knows at thirteen that she’ll be infertile by twenty, just like everyone else around her age. “They’re saying that all this wacky hormonal stuff is coming from pressure to be hyperproductive,” she says, minutes into the film. “We have too many choices and we’re making the same ones over and over again, and they’re the wrong choices, actually, so it’s like natural deselection. Our DNA is opting out.” Jules says this in a tone of terse recitation, characteristic of someone used to giving the correct answer. She might have learned it in school. The two of them are in a city park that, for a metropolitan afternoon, is eerily deserted. Gwen’s face is carefully neutral but her brows knit slightly, unwittingly, belying disappointment. “I was going to tell you when you were a little bit older,” she says. Gwen still clings to believing that Jules has the option to delay facing the fact of eventual bodily betrayal, while Jules already knows that such an option no longer exists.

Like everyone else in her generation, Jules is overwhelmingly aware that she’s running out of time. Rampant unemployment has caused a sharp spike in poverty, and resources are scarce. The economic elite are the only ones whose lives aren’t dictated by struggle and they’re closing ranks, leaving those born outside that elite with a single point of entry. This point, the be-all-end-all of class mobility (particularly for girls), is acceptance to private school. Jules has a window of about a year. If she doesn’t get accepted, or if Gwen can’t afford to pay for her to go, the window closes forever.

Advantageous is separated from the present by decades, not centuries. This closeness is palpable in its class tensions, in how scarcity is a constant, in how Gwen and Jules’s adversary is not a totalitarian government or environmental apocalypse. The crux of the film’s conflict stems from an idea of future progress that centers around computer-based technology. When moving toward this future, the human body’s innate fallibility becomes unacceptable. It starts to be seen as an unruly element that can be controlled through sheer strength of will.

The film’s central piece of futuristic tech comes courtesy of Gwen’s employer, a biotech company called the Center for Advanced Health and Living. The Center has set out to correct the body’s fallibility by offering the opportunity to discard it, through transference of individual consciousness from a dissatisfactory body into a better one. This is an ostensibly medical procedure designed to improve quality and duration of life for the disabled and fatally ill, advertised as “akin to a seamless jump into a disease-free body of your choosing through a lossless, relatively painless process” (decades, not centuries – and so the viewer knows enough to accurately infer that this procedure is for-profit and will be used only by those able to afford it, for reasons more cosmetic than anything else).

The Center is selling the opportunity to free oneself from being born into and inhabiting a human body—to experience life without the constraints of linear time, as felt by bodily aging. Gwen has the option to be the procedure’s guinea pig and advocate. If she chooses not to, well, as the Center’s spokesperson, she’s aged out of her appeal to a younger demographic. The Center’s offer isn’t an explicit ultimatum; rather, via the subtle machinations of Center executives Isa Cryer (Jennifer Ehle) and Dave Fisher (James Urbaniak), Gwen eventually volunteers. Her alternatives are stripped away until the choice to do so is inevitable.

In her late forties, Gwen is simply too old to get a new job at the same level as her current one. She doesn’t realize this at first; after putting her qualifications into an employment agency’s database, a computerized voice suggests that her best option is to sell her viable eggs before it’s too late. Her fertility is her last, best option, the final physical marker of youth taking priority over her graduate degrees and years of experience as a high-level professional. There’s several attempts to get money from various family members, which proves to be fruitless. It becomes increasingly apparent that if she’s aged too obviously to be valuable as a Center representative, she can’t afford to Jules’s private school tuition, which has consequences too severe for Gwen to entertain as a possibility. Her eventual decision—or lack thereof—is a product of her time, but her circumstances have undeniable roots in the present.

I’m preparing to move back to the Bay Area, after four years away at college. I’ve always been aware of tech culture’s influence in the place where I grew up, but have only recently begun to realize how deeply I felt its effects. In this culture’s world of tomorrow, your work is everything, and inspiration comes in source-irrelevent aphorisms like “Work now, sleep when you’re dead” or “Life is short: build stuff that matters.” For this stuff to be inspirational, the body—with its fallibility and the consequent need for care—has to become irrelevant. This is a place where prioritizing bodily care over professional hustle is a cardinal sin; the thinking goes that if one’s work truly matters, there’s no legitimate reason to need anything else. And so “What do you do?” is a cipher for “Do you matter? At all?”

This rhetoric creates an earnest, smothering optimism that places the work being done as the path to a better future. For a body to have value in this better future, it must be able to meet that optimism’s demands to constantly operate at maximum capacity.

My hometown is about twenty minutes from Palo Alto by a train line called Caltrain, which local high school students have increasingly begun using to kill themselves. When The Atlantic’s Hannah Rosin reported on this in a 2015 cover story titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” she took care to note the atmosphere of shocked disbelief that arose after each student’s death. The affluence of the area, the earnest optimism with which tech workers regarded the future, seemed entirely at odds with a rising generation that no longer wanted to live.

Despite my zip code being several income levels removed, Rosin’s findings weren’t a revelation. I immediately recognized the atmosphere of extreme stress and its connection to viewing bodily limits as optional, which creates a pressure cooker for suicidal impulses. In a culture that lionizes the prodigal youth, early-onset perfection is understood as the rule, not the exception. Pushing away the possibility of death, rejecting the indicators of its presence as abhorrent, is an act that indicates success only has value if it’s achieved within your first few decades. Any and all opportunities must be seized before the appearance of age, which can only serve as a hindrance. Teenagers living in the direct shadow of tech’s smothering optimism are obligated to perform accordingly, and they grow to believe that every birthday stacks the odds further against them. They’re overwhelmed with fear at the perceived stakes of a single missed opportunity, enough so that the only way to stop the demand of maximum function is to cease the body’s potential for functioning altogether.

This fear acts as an incubator for the near-future of Advantageous, in terms of how much desperation underlies what’s at stake for Gwen and Jules. “This is the only time in your daughter’s life when her choices will make a difference” says a private-school mother (Olivia Horton), after hints that Gwen might have difficulty paying. “Take the help you can get.” Ultimately, the only help that Gwen can get requires her to disavow an aging body as something worthless and disposable. She schedules the procedure for immediately after Christmas.

New Gwen (Freya Adams) works perfectly for the Center’s vision of tech-based progress, commanding audiences by strength of the sheer contrast between before/after pictures. In private, she’s incredibly fragile, dependent on an intricate routine of medical treatments to keep from hemorrhage or organ failure. New Gwen has the appearance of youth with none of its vitality; she’s physically lovely, but exists in the world with all the ease of an animate corpse.

She is, in fact, precisely that. In a pre-procedure flashback, we see Dave Fisher admitting to Gwen that the technology for her to seamlessly continue existence in a different body “isn’t quite there yet.” Rather, she’ll undergo a process that creates a “psychophysiological twin” of cloned neurons through electrodes that connect her older brain to that of a younger host. The removal of these electrodes causes significant damage to both. The younger brain can still repair itself to full function; the older brain cannot, and so it dies. The Center’s claim that human consciousness can exist independently of the body’s capacity to age is purely a marketing technique.

Death can be directly acknowledged, but only in the context of a price for superficial agelessness. This is bodily denial at its apex. The procedure’s true nature is a product of the same future that left Gwen without the option to refuse it. Much like New Gwen, this future is sickly and untenable. But this is where it begins: next month I’ll move and continue being stalked by the ever-growing sensation that, at twenty-one, I am running out of time.