Once upon a time, we would describe movies with a certain aesthetic as being “Twilight Zone-y.” Maybe they have a very specific sci-fi/alternate reality premise, or maybe they end with a twist that forces us to re-examine everything that’s come before. The new reference point for these types of stories is Black Mirror, the UK anthology series that tends to tell dark stories involving technology, its limitations, and, most often, the threats it has the potential to pose.
All of this is to say that Empathy, Inc., the new film by screenwriter Mark Leidner and director Yedidya Gorsetman (the pair’s follow-up to 2014’s Jammed), feels a lot like an episode of Black Mirror that looks like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Zack Robidas plays Joel, one of these finance bigshots who loses everything on a bad deal and is forced to move in with his wife’s parents. Desperate to get back on his feet, he meets with an old friend from business school, Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who introduces Joel to a promising new VR technology: a startup called Empathy Inc., where wealthy people can virtually experience what it’s like to be disadvantaged so as to better appreciate what they have. Joel partners with Nicolaus and Lester (Jay Klaitz), the surly creator of the VR tech, investing his in-laws’ life savings in the venture. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. The comparison to Black Mirror was not accidental.
Shot in black and white and fairly minimalist in form, Empathy, Inc. is low-budget science fiction done right: it takes one or two sci-fi ideas and explores them down to their most humanistic ramifications. The actual “Empathy, Inc.” tech is just the starting point in Leidner’s script, and one of the things that’s special about the film is that it continues to find ways to turn the screws on its characters all the way through its final moments. There’s more simplistic version of this movie that introduces a premise and plays out that premise for its entire running time; Empathy Inc., on the other hand, keeps introducing new wrinkles and new ideas throughout in a way that’s hard to predict. Like all the best stories, it actually unfolds as it goes along.
Being a low-budget effort, there’s not a lot of room or money for special effects. That doesn’t matter. Empathy, Inc.’s greatest special effect is its acting, particularly the four performances at the film’s center. There are aspects to the story – in particular, the science fiction elements of the story – that we are able to believe based solely on the strength of the acting. To say more would require talking spoilers, which I don’t want to do, but there is a scene near the end of the film that just features three characters standing together in a room together that is insane and audacious, and the fact that film has led up to that moment and earned it is no small feat.
A number of the films screening at this year’s Cinepocalypse festival deal with fears surrounding technology, but the best of them acknowledge that technology is not inherently evil – it’s just a tool for people to be even more awful to one another. Empathy, Inc. is that kind of story, raising questions identity, of class, and of personal responsibility in a way that’s both universal and very much of our time. Like all good sci-fi, it’s ultimately a film about human nature.
Though smaller and more character-driven than many of the other festival movies, Empathy, Inc. is among the strongest thanks to a smart, focused script, excellent performances, and solid direction that’s confident enough to let the material come forward and not dress it up with a bunch of unnecessary style. The black and white photography – a decision made in part to keep the budget lower and in part to evoke ’40 and ‘50s film noir – is the movie’s biggest visual flourish, but works for the story being told. The movie presents a world of black and white and then acknowledges that things are quite so simple. Nothing ever is.