Apparently, money really can buy anything, even including empathy. That begs the obvious question: if you don’t have it already, why would you want to purchase it? The notion that experiencing how the other half lives may ring hollow, but a disgraced venture capitalist like Joel Leesman Green doesn’t ask a lot of question when the chance for a quick rebound presents itself. Alas, there is no substitute for due diligence in Yedidya Gorsetman’s Empathy Inc (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.
When the latest tech bubble burst, Green’s former company became the poster child. It turns out the founder was cooking the books and the tech. Even though Green was not directly culpable, his reputation and net worth took a pounding. Awkwardly, he and his wife are forced to move back in with her parents. However, opportunity seems to be knocking when he bumps into an old colleague, Nicolaus Vesey (a.k.a. “Sleazy Vesey”). Yes, Green should probably know better, but he is sufficiently intrigued by Vesey’s VR start-up to give it a look-see.
The experience developed by squirrely, anti-social inventor Lester Cooper really seems to transport customers into the mean world of the less fortunate. According to Vesey’s pitch, the experience makes customers better appreciate their own privileged lives. Seeing is believing, so Green manipulates his father-in-law into investing. Then he discovers the Extreme VR experience is really something altogether different.
Empathy Inc is first of the few grungy, low-fi science fiction films in quite a while that actually works. There has been plenty of terrific low budget sf, but they have mostly transcended rather than wallowed in their micro-budgets. In this case, Darin Quan’s strikingly stark black-and-white cinematography looks like it could have been shot on left-over odd-lot film stock from the production of Eraserhead. The film really is that Spartan and moody.
There are also some neat twists to this tale, beyond the revelation of XVR’s true business model. Screenwriter Mark Leidner fully explores the Macguffin’s potential for causing complications and havoc. The ensemble also does great work selling the premise and its sinister implications. Both Zack Robidas and Jay Klaitz show tremendous range as Green and Cooper, respectively, but it would be spoilery to explain how. Eric Berryman is also spectacularly slick and slimy as Sleazy Vesey.
Gorsetman and Leidner offer up a decidedly dark rendering of human nature, but they still allow for the possibility of redemption. This is an ironic film, but there is a constructive point to it all. It also presents some smart, borderline-analog science fiction. Recommended for fans of ultra-indie sf, in the tradition of Aronofsky’s Pi, Empathy Inc had its East Coast premiere as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.