review by Jim Laczkowski
That old expression, “try walking in my shoes,” takes on a literal form in the film EMPATHY, INC. We all wonder about why we are the way we are, and what it would be like to be someone else, even just for a day. No, this remarkable sci-fi tale isn’t your typical body-switching story, it is far more complex and anxiety-inducing. Suffice to say, it’s quite possible that Roger Ebert would have enjoyed this particular film since it takes the idea of “empathy” and manifests it into something sinister. What if Ebert’s idea of an empathy machine wasn’t a metaphor for cinema, but an actual machine that could allow you some time to experience the lives of others?
Like a lot of modern science fiction, director Yedidya Gorsetman’s EMPATHY, INC., manages to explore the idea of technology gone awry in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Initially, I assumed it would simply be a more serious take on the great BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. I would say that some of the themes mirror the approach that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman did, but turns it into a more relatable and personal story. If any of us suddenly had an app that allowed this experience to take place, there is no doubt that selfishness would come into play, rather than exploring our humanity in a more philosophical manner. Heck, even Marty McFly wanted to use the time machine in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II to make big bucks. Human nature is kind of messy, self-involved and not always in service of altruism.
Venture capitalist Joel (Zack Robidas) has a business dollar deal go up in smoke, and he and his actress wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) are forced to move in with her parents and begin reshaping their lives. At the most desperate moment in his life, Joel meets old friend Nicolaus in a bar, someone who appears to have good intentions. Later he also encounters Nicolaus’ business partner Lester, who are seeking investors in a new technology known as XVR—Xtreme Virtual Reality—from their company Empathy, Inc. Their rather intriguing service is to offer the most realistic and moving experiences for users by placing them in the lives of the less fortunate. It involves a computer program and a headset, along with an injection of a muscle relaxant. Joel gets the startup its funds by asking his wife’s parents, but soon discovers that the tech's creators have more questionable intentions and that the reality it provides its customers isn't exactly what it appears to be. Despite the character-building and slow setup, the film immediately kicks into high gear once Joel becomes intoxicated with the invention itself.
In essence, you know something is going to go wrong the moment that Joel proclaims “I’ve never felt more like myself before.” The idea of connecting so strongly to someone else can immediately make us social creatures feel more at peace. We can feel a bond with certain people that does, in fact, allow for us to become better individuals. Empathy is something I truly feel can be a blessing and a curse and the excellent script by Mark Leidner manages to explore the dark side of a technological breakthrough in a way that is smart, engaging, and involving from beginning to end. At times I thought of Shane Carruth’s PRIMER with less technical jargon, particularly once the complexities are set into motion. The choice to shoot in B&W also adds to the eerieness and Twilight Zone quality. Every choice allows the main character to veer towards paranoia and identity crisis in ways that Philip K. Dick would whole-heartedly approve of. EMPATHY, INC. is a terrific example of a science fiction thriller done exceptionally well, in ways that are refreshing and challenging. I have zero issues with the film as a whole even when I would suspect would happen, does in fact happen. Audiences will definitely leave the theater with a lot to think about and much like myself, eagerly anticipate a rewatch in order to share the experience with others. This is easily one of the very best films that Cinepocalypse has to offer throughout the week-long fest.