For this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, I decided to shift a bit out of my comfort zone and review a sci-fi film. I’ve never been a fan of science fiction, so picking Rigel Films’ sci-fi thriller, Empathy Inc., was a tricky decision from the start. So, was it a good decision or should I have gone with something else?
Empathy Inc. was created by the team behind 2014’s Jammed – Director Yedidya Gorsetman, Screenwriter Mark Leidner and Producer Josh Itzkowitz. The film stars Zack Robidas (Tooth and Nail 2007), Kathy Searle (LI Divas TV series), Jay Klaitz (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony 2009), Eric Berryman (After Louie 2017) and AJ Cedeno (I Shudder 2016).
An investor in a VR startup discovers that the reality the company provides isn’t virtual.
After losing his reputation – and his shirt – in a highly publicized investment fraud, Joel (Robidas) and his wife, Jessica (Searle), tuck their tails between their legs and go back East to live with Jessica’s parents. After pressure from the inlaws to get their asses in gear and Joel’s chance meeting with an old friend and colleague, Nicolaus “Sleezy” Veezy (Berryman), things actually seem to be looking up for the couple. Hidden behind the locked doors of Nicholaus’ dilapidated office building, Joel finds a virtual reality experience that completely changes his life. This newly developed augmented reality program, XVR (Extreme Virtual Reality), takes middle to upper class members of society and dumps them into the minds of the poor and destitute, helping them to appreciate what they have. According to Nicholas: “Walk a mile in the shoes of the less fortunate, and when you wake up, no matter what problem you have in your real life, you feel that much better.” From what Joel can tell after his own experience in the program, this is 100% true. If it feels good, it must be good… right?
Despite my usual aversion to the sci-fi genre, I was intrigued by the plot for Empathy Inc. With the virtual/augmented reality business such a hot topic now, you know that these filmmakers have their thumbs on the pulse of society, and it’s always interesting to see where their ideas will take them.
The film that Yedidya Gorsetman and Mark Leidner created is an excellent sci-fi thriller, the best I’ve seen since Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral. The premise reminded me a bit of “Playtest,” the S3, ep. 2 of Black Mirror. The FX were simple – a few helmets, an old dentist chair or two, a handful of wires, a gallon of fake blood – but Empathy Inc. didn’t need any fancy prosthetics or CGI. The tightly woven script, phenomenal acting (especially from Zack Robidas, who had to play several parts, which he pulled off seamlessly) and DoP Darin Quan’s fluid black and white cinematography blended together to create quite an exhilarating film. I loved that this hugely complicated VR procedure was developed on what looked the simplest DOS program. The twist was inventive and remarkable impressive. Much like Get Out, I actually can see people signing up to do what XVR was made to do, despite the negative side effects. Who wouldn’t want to be someone else for a while, to see what it’s like to live another life, to play the role of another human being without any consequences?
Joel: “Why’d you do it!?”
Lester: “When I was a kid, I was told we could be anyone we wanted to be. I actually believed it.”
What Doesn’t Work
There’s not really much that I would say doesn’t work in Empathy Inc. There are a few things I would have liked to see, but they’re not really criticisms. I think if Jay Klaitz had played Lester with more of an offbeat, mad scientist turn, his character would have been more entertaining to watch, especially since he’s introduced while wearing those cool Ichabod Crane magnifying glasses. I also would have liked to see more pre-twist XVR adventures. That idea was full of untapped potential, and it would have been fun to watch people getting to play uncharacteristic personalities. Speaking of the VR trips, I wasn’t sure why Joel’s first experience was cropped into a small box in the center of the screen and the others weren’t. But really, those are the only off putting things that come to mind.
I was absolutely thrilled with Empathy Inc. It’s not often that I completely lose myself in a film, especially with the amount that I watch just for PopHorror alone, but I was completely hypnotized by this one. It is a whip-smart story that combines simple FX, a few locations and a phenomenal script into a perfect sci-fi thriller for people who don’t like robots or outer space. If you’re a fan of virtual reality, the film Get Out, or roller coaster thrillers, be sure to give Empathy Inc. a watch.