Here’s a science fiction premise you’ve probably heard before: a person encounters a shadowy company that sells hyper-realistic virtual experiences. They’re put into an incredibly vivid simulated reality through some kind of brainwave helmet or injected drug. Then something goes wrong and the protagonist discovers — say it with me now — that the experience isn’t virtual at all.
The new film Empathy, Inc. is nominally one of these stories. Written by author Mark Leidner and directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, the film premiered at the Cinepocalypse festival in 2018, and it’s getting a wider theatrical release this week. But Empathy, Inc. isn’t playing in the same field as mind-bending trips like David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ or the Black Mirror episode “Playtest.” It’s a tragedy grounded in the murky world of tech startups and financial hucksterism — a vision of Silicon Valley where everyone is simultaneously a swindler and a mark.
Empathy, Inc.’s protagonist Joel (Zack Robidas) is at a low point in his life. After getting caught in a Theranos-like scandal in Silicon Valley, Joel and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) are living with Jessica’s disapproving parents (Fenton Lawless and Charmaine Reedy) in New York. But things start looking up when Joel’s old friend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) reveals that he’s founded a new startup called Empathy, Inc. The secretive company creates “X-Treme Virtual Reality,” which lets rich users experience the lives of underprivileged people. All Nicolaus and his partner Lester (Jay Klaitz) need is a million dollars to get it off the ground.
Joel wheedles the money from his in-laws, but, unsurprisingly, the startup is hiding a sinister secret. Joel begins to question what’s real — not just in the virtual experiences he’s entering, but in his ordinary life where he’s accused of a cruel act he can’t remember. His wife, a struggling actor, is furious that he’s taken her family’s nest egg. And when Joel desperately tries to turn the tables on Nicolaus, he endangers himself, his family, and everyone involved in Empathy, Inc.
Empathy, Inc. dips lightly into the trippy effects of its powerful technology. Its titular startup evokes the real “empathy machine” genre of VR, which ranges from serious psychological experiments to tone-deaf poverty tourism. (Nicolaus’ goals, it turns out, are even more callous.)
But to Joel and others in the film, what the tech can do is less important than its status as a zeitgeist-y investment opportunity. The film doesn’t portray virtual reality like a science fiction dream or dystopian nightmare, but as the sort of mysterious, buzzword-laden concept that analysts bloviate about alongside “blockchain government” and “the Cloud.” It’s a vicious but recognizable caricature of VR’s place in culture today, not just its futuristic potential.
Empathy, Inc.’s black-and-white cinematography, cynical storyline, and occasional hardboiled repartee give the film a noirish gloss. And a few creepy, evocative ideas pepper the generally short VR sections, like a solemn instruction to “avoid mirrors at all costs.” But the film spends more time on the most unglamorously bourgeois moments of Joel’s life, particularly the hectoring, circular conversations with his in-laws.
Joel is a blandly nice guy who was apparently blindsided by his role in a Silicon Valley fraud scheme. But he refuses to abandon a world that’s based on hype and snake oil, and he’s willing to drag other people down with him. That includes his in-laws, who prize financial success and are thoroughly sick of Jessica’s artsy endeavors and Joel’s squishy sympathy for the economically disadvantaged.
Plenty of science fiction movies are about the very rich exploiting the very poor. Joel and his in-laws fall more realistically in between: successful enough to kick at the people below them, but not rich enough to be fully insulated from their mistakes. Their social striving makes them easy prey for Nicolaus, who Berryman plays as disarmingly personable, and Lester, a nondescript, sullen nerd who unravels into something much darker.
Empathy, Inc. can arguably be too effective at puncturing the mystique of its own world. It’s a slow-burn thriller with characters who are compellingly drawn but hard to root for. Its predictable premise sometimes helps shift the focus toward interpersonal drama, but it makes characters spend too much time figuring out twists that the audience has probably guessed. Only in the last act, as Joel’s life devolves into disaster, does the action speed up enough to match the plot.
Still, Empathy, Inc. uses a classic science fiction premise to explore contemporary tensions about technology and social class. Is the empathy machine ultimately good or bad? It’s never fully clear because Empathy, Inc.’s revolutionary tech is just a smokescreen — it’s money that shapes the world.
Empathy, Inc. will open in theaters on September 13th and on VOD on September 24th.