Empathy, Inc. is a virtual reality thriller for an age of tech cynicism

Right here’s a science fiction premise you’ve in all probability heard earlier than: an individual encounters a shadowy firm that sells hyper-realistic digital experiences. They’re put into an extremely vivid simulated actuality by means of some form of brainwave helmet or injected drug. Then one thing goes improper and the protagonist discovers — say it with me now — that the expertise isn’t digital in any respect.

The brand new movie Empathy, Inc. is nominally one in every of these tales. Written by creator Mark Leidner and directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, the movie premiered on the Cinepocalypse pageant in 2018, and it’s getting a wider theatrical launch this week. However Empathy, Inc. isn’t enjoying in the identical subject as mind-bending journeys like David Cronenberg’s movie eXistenZ or the Black Mirror episode “Playtest.” It’s a tragedy grounded within the murky world of tech startups and monetary hucksterism — a imaginative and prescient of Silicon Valley the place everyone seems to be concurrently a swindler and a mark.

Empathy, Inc.’s protagonist Joel (Zack Robidas) is at a low level in his life. After getting caught in a Theranos-like scandal in Silicon Valley, Joel and his spouse Jessica (Kathy Searle) live with Jessica’s disapproving dad and mom (Fenton Lawless and Charmaine Reedy) in New York. However issues begin trying up when Joel’s previous buddy Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) reveals that he’s based a brand new startup referred to as Empathy, Inc. The secretive firm creates “X-Treme Virtual Reality,” which lets wealthy customers expertise the lives of underprivileged folks. All Nicolaus and his accomplice Lester (Jay Klaitz) want is one million {dollars} to get it off the bottom.

Joel wheedles the cash from his in-laws, however, unsurprisingly, the startup is hiding a sinister secret. Joel begins to query what’s actual — not simply within the digital experiences he’s getting into, however in his unusual life the place he’s accused of a merciless act he can’t bear in mind. His spouse, a struggling actor, is livid that he’s taken her household’s nest egg. And when Joel desperately tries to show the tables on Nicolaus, he endangers himself, his household, and everybody concerned in Empathy, Inc.

Empathy, Inc. dips calmly into the trippy results of its highly effective know-how. Its titular startup evokes the actual “empathy machine” style of VR, which ranges from critical psychological experiments to tone-deaf poverty tourism. (Nicolaus’ targets, it seems, are much more callous.)

However to Joel and others within the movie, what the tech can do is much less necessary than its standing as a zeitgeist-y funding alternative. The movie doesn’t painting digital actuality like a science fiction dream or dystopian nightmare, however because the kind of mysterious, buzzword-laden idea that analysts bloviate about alongside “blockchain government” and “the Cloud.” It’s a vicious however recognizable caricature of VR’s place in tradition at present, not simply its futuristic potential.

Empathy, Inc.’s black-and-white cinematography, cynical storyline, and occasional hardboiled repartee give the movie a noirish gloss. And some creepy, evocative concepts pepper the commonly brief VR sections, like a solemn instruction to “avoid mirrors at all costs.” However the movie spends extra time on essentially the most unglamorously bourgeois moments of Joel’s life, significantly the hectoring, round conversations along with his in-laws.

Joel is a blandly good man who was apparently blindsided by his function in a Silicon Valley fraud scheme. However he refuses to desert a world that’s based mostly on hype and snake oil, and he’s keen to tug different folks down with him. That features his in-laws, who prize monetary success and are completely sick of Jessica’s artsy endeavors and Joel’s squishy sympathy for the economically deprived.

Picture: Darkish Star Photos

Loads of science fiction motion pictures are concerning the very wealthy exploiting the very poor. Joel and his in-laws fall extra realistically in between: profitable sufficient to kick on the folks under them, however not wealthy sufficient to be totally insulated from their errors. Their social striving makes them simple prey for Nicolaus, who Berryman performs as disarmingly personable, and Lester, a nondescript, sullen nerd who unravels into one thing a lot darker.

Empathy, Inc. can arguably be too efficient at puncturing the mystique of its personal world. It’s a slow-burn thriller with characters who’re compellingly drawn however onerous to root for. Its predictable premise typically helps shift the main focus towards interpersonal drama, but it surely makes characters spend an excessive amount of time determining twists that the viewers has in all probability guessed. Solely within the final act, as Joel’s life devolves into catastrophe, does the motion velocity up sufficient to match the plot.

Nonetheless, Empathy, Inc. makes use of a basic science fiction premise to discover up to date tensions about know-how and social class. Is the empathy machine in the end good or dangerous? It’s by no means totally clear as a result of Empathy, Inc.’s revolutionary tech is only a smokescreen — it’s cash that shapes the world.

Empathy, Inc. will open in theaters on September 13th and on VOD on September 24th.


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