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?
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?)
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.