Advance Review: Empathy, Inc. (2019)

Empathy, Inc. is proving to be a very difficult movie for me to review in terms of its own merits. We’re living in a new age of sci-fi storytelling, and whether we want to admit it or not, this new sci-fi pivots around the hard fulcrum of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. So when a film comes along with an unexplored take on a well-trod concept and manages to root it in a new tech? It’s nearly impossible to resist holding it up to the prism established by the new gold standard of sci-fi anthologies. Is that fair to the artistic integrity of the filmmakers? I can’t honestly say. But the truth is, this film stands up pretty well to my impure scrutiny.

Empathy, Inc. is an expertly paced, well-acted thriller about a cutting-edge technology gone awry. Joel is a down-and-out venture capitalist who gets drawn into a startup with the title company and their XVR system, only to discover that the “X-treme Virtual Reality” they have put together is not so much Virtual and much more X-treme than he could have imagined. While no attempt is made to explain the science, XVR presents its users an opportunity to swap bodies with those less fortunate than themselves. “Walk a mile in their shoes,” as it were.

But before we get to that point, we first encounter Joel who is on top of the world. He’s on the verge of launching some major new tech, but the bottom quickly falls out. All of his carefully shepherded investors lose a bundle, making Joel a financial pariah and he and his wife are forced to leave the West Coast to move back east to stay with his in-laws until they can get back on their feet. When an opportunity falls into his lap, his desperation and wounded pride get the best of him and he hastily convinces his in-laws to stake their retirement nest egg in a tech startup. It’s only after this commitment that he realizes the true nature of XVR and spends the second act of the film trying to atone for his error in judgement.

While the first two acts effectively present an engaging and personal story of human desperation and paranoia, the final act goes positively gonzo with body-swapping technology. The reversals come fast and furious, and the final twist hits with unexpected force. Maybe it was a combination of the black and white cinematography with the nicely paced complexity of the final act, but I was reminded of Branagh’s underappreciated reincarnation noir classic Dead Again.

This is the second feature from the writer and director team of Mark Leidner and Yedidya Gorsetman, respectively. Their first collaboration was 2014’s Jammed, a romantic comedy set at a jam band festival. Empathy, Inc. is beautifully shot in gritty black and white, which serves the subject matter nicely. There’s a creeping paranoia to the film, and the stark chiaroscuro lends to the overall noirish quality of the first couple of acts. Much of the movie plays as if Philip K. Dick wrote a screenplay for Fritz Lang. The characters are nicely developed and acted with depth by a hugely engaging cast. Zack Robidas does the heavy lifting in the central role of Joel, but Kathy Searle is convincingly real as his beleaguered wife, Jessica. For this viewer, though, the standout performance had to go to Jay Klaitz as Lester, the tech guy behind this new technology. In order to maintain a relatively spoiler-free status for this advance review, I will carefully remark how Klaitz easily and naturally makes the startling transition from the somewhat comical techie character when we first encounter him into his state in the final moments of the film.

An IMDB search revealed Klaitz to be the voice of a character in Grand Theft Auto 4 or 5 (also named Lester, which begs the question whether this movie is canon to GTA — not really, it’s clearly not), as well as a couple of recurring roles on the HBO series Vinyl and The Get Down on Netflix. Both of which I want to take the time to watch now, because he positively dominates the final act, even when it isn’t him acting as his character. The last half of that last sentence is super confusing, but it’ll make more sense after you’ve seen the flick. And while body swapping has been used largely for comedic purposes in past films (Freaky Friday, All of Me, Shrek the Third, et al), this one gives it a bit of a horrific spin, and that’s what makes it all come together to win me over in the end.

I would recommend Empathy, Inc. It’s totally worth checking out, particularly since we can’t know how long we’ll have to wait for new Black Mirror episodes.

Dark Star Pictures will release EMPATHY INC in theaters (9/13) and VOD (9/24) this fall. 

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