Empathy Inc (Movie Review)

The Nineties ended long ago, yet the appeal of virtual reality lives on. The likes of Oculus Rift, PS VR and VIVE let people play the kind of VR games people could only dream about back in the past. Even beyond the machines themselves, there is plenty of media about telling different stories about VR worlds and games. Be it the love-it-or-leave-it 2011 novel and 2018 film Ready Player One, or the 2013 light novel series Sword Art Online. The latter proved so popular in its native land of Japan that there is now a string of ‘isekai’ (‘other world’) comics, series and films that range from quite good (That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime 2013) to quite detestable (Gate 2010).

Due in theaters on Friday, September 13th and on VOD the 24th via Dark Star Pictures, fortunately Empathy Inc is a step above the Gates and Ready Player Ones of the world in its premise. So, does this Sci-Fi Thriller thrill enough? Or should people bring their own Oculus Rifts into the theater?

Empathy Inc still.

Written, directed, and produced by Yedidya Gorsetman (Jammed 2014), with extra writing provided by Mark Leidner (Same Boat 2019), Empathy Inc is about capitalism gone wrong. High-flying businessman Joel (Zack Robidas: Abitrage 2012) ends up back at the bottom of the totem pole after a deal gone wrong. He not only loses his investment, but his house, as he and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle: Baby Mama 2008) end up moving back in with her parents.

Then he meets his old friend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman: After Louie 2017) and his business partner Lester (Jay Klaitz: Grand Theft Auto V videogame). They need help for their company Empathy Inc, and their new Xtreme Virtual Reality technology. It is said to offer the most authentic VR experience by putting people into the lives of the less fortunate. Joel helps them get it off the ground, but then he finds out the company has disturbing plans for XVR, and that its Reality is not so virtual after all.

If they did, they would miss the nice cinematography. There are some inventive shots and angles on display that really spice up the proceedings. For example, when Joel tries to contact his old business partner to stay afloat, it is done with a shot-reverse-shot, but in close-up and through a crack in the door. It is a pretty effective way to showcase someone desperately trying to keep his opportunity open when it is already closed off.

Then there is how the XVR world is represented. In the past, the traditional way of separating reality from fantasy was to put the real world in black-and-white, then the fantasy world in color, e.g. 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Here, it is all in black-and-white, be it due to budget or to emphasize the ‘Xtreme’ part of the reality. In XVR, the viewpoint is done in first-person, with a smaller, boxed-off view and amplified close sounds like breathing, etc.

It is a pretty effective way of making the character, and thus the viewer, feel like they have gotten into someone else’s headspace. All without breaking the bank by going after a blockbuster budget either. Previous VR-based tales have usually required fancy effects and trickery. Here, it is just deft direction, camera work and use of the film’s cast. Not that it came out of nowhere. There are a few shots that seem to hint at its inspirations (like Joel contemplating what is real by looking into a spoon. But is there a spoon to begin with?)

Empathy Inc still.

Unlike 1999’s The Matrix, Empathy Inc is less about technology overcoming humanity than humanity taking on itself. The well-meaning try to help those at the bottom, while being used by the high class to abuse them. They end up being ‘useful idiots’ for the less-scrupulous to make big bucks. Only the big bads are not Mr. Burns-esque skinflints or old-money bankers, but aspiring Silicon Valley techbods; a relatively new-class of cash grabbers.

At least that is one way of seeing things. It adds to the drama, as does Joel’s slow realisation of how XVR works and what kind of person Nicolaus is. Robidas gives Joel an effective gradual shift from chutzpah to fear as the story progresses. Likewise, Berryman does well in being amiable before showing Nicolaus’ ruthless side. Even Joel’s in-laws Ward (Fenton Lawless: Stranger Things 2017) and Vicky (Charmaine Reedy: Telefone 2010) as supportive yet unknowing victims-by-proxy. When everything hits the fan, the film really gets the audience to sympathize with their plight. Or should that be empathize?

So, Empathy Inc offers a strong story that offers plenty to chew over, effective drama, and great camera work. It is almost a perfect film, except for its messy climax. The film offers a few more surprise twists, with the issue being that it feels cluttered compared to the build-up. One turn leads to another, which leads to another. That is not to say it is disappointing or ends on a sour note. As an ending, it works. It just feels like it could have made one right turn instead of three lefts.

Regardless, Empathy Inc deserves kudos. The destination is surreal, but the journey provides enough reason to make it worth a watch or two. It is certainly worth its rating anyway as, for these reasons, CrypticRock gives this film 4 out of 5 stars.

Dark Star Pictures

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Day HeathAuthor posts

Avatar for Day Heath

Day Heath is a Capricorn who likes long walks on the beach, picnics on the grass, and reviewing films. They have an occasionally updated blog called Thinkin' Thinkin' at www.thinkinthinkin.wordpress.com about films, history travelling and anything else on their mind. They're willing to offer their two cents, and might even give you change.


  • I thought the film explored an intriguing concept with a well-paced plot. The eerie feel and notes of social commentary are similar to The Twilight Zone while the narrative is emotionally compelling. I think it’s definitely worth the watch.

  • Empathy, Inc, a sci-fi thriller movie releasing on VOD, September 24th, is a must see! This indie film, directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, embodies themes of moral ambiguity and social conflicts tied in with the dangers of new technological advances. With Spooky season and Halloween just right around the corner, I’d have to recommend to go see this film!

  • I thought Empathy, Inc., fully encaptured the viewers imagination and focus, with its encaptivating cinematography and suspense filled storyline. The use of virtual reality and escapism keeps the audience on edge, only to deliver a fulfilling and shocking ending.

  • What an interesting idea for futuristic VR! Seems like an exhilarating and compelling sci-fi thriller that I can’t miss.

  • Paying attention to the sound in a movie is not something I normally do when I watch a film. However, in Empathy Inc. the sound was something I was drawn to; the switching between scenes and editing of the sound kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. It’s a great watch!

  • With virtual reality being up and coming technology, the events in Empathy Inc really make you think where the real-life development of VR can go. This film invites viewers to think deeper into where technology is going and the ethical connotations attached to these new developments. It really made me think and peaked my interest, I’d definitely recommend.

  • Intriguing that Empathy Inc. embraces the noir style of a modern-day Sci fi thriller/horror film. It exemplifies risk taking, bad decisions with future technology. Creatively well done! Can’t wait for its release on VOD September 24.

  • After watching Empathy Inc on VOD, I thought that the leading actor Joel, played by Zack Robidas, did an inspiring job displaying his moral struggle throughout this film. You could definitely empathize with his misfortunes throughout the film, making it that much easier to relate to him. I strongly encourage you to watch this new sci-fi/thriller film!

  • This is such a perfect film to watch on Halloween– the mix of sci-fi and horror was really intriguing. I’m glad that I stumbled upon this review because I really enjoyed watching Empathy, Inc!

  • I loved how Empathy, Inc. played with and combined different genres into one film. The elements of both thriller and sci-fi really stuck out to me, and I also felt that the choice to make the film all black and white was a great way to set the dark tone. Definitely worth a watch!

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