Empathy, Inc. is a virtual reality thriller for an era of technical cynicism

This is a science fiction premise that you've probably heard before: a person meets a shady company that sells hyper-realistic virtual experiences. They are brought into an incredibly vivid simulated reality by some sort of brainwave helmet or injected drug. Then something goes wrong and the protagonist – tell me now – discovers the experience is not virtual at all.

The new movie Empathy, Inc. is nominally one of these stories. Written by author Mark Leidner and directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, the film premiered at the Cinepocalypse festival in 2018 and will get a wider theatrical release this week. But Empathy, Inc. does not play in the same field as mind-breaking journeys such as David Cronenberg's film eXistenZ or the Black mirror episode "Playtest." It is a tragedy grounded in the dark world of tech startups and financial hucksterism – a vision of Silicon Valley where everyone is a scammer and a mark at the same time.

Empathy, Inc. & # 39; s protagonist Joel (Zack Robidas) is at a low point in his life. After being caught in a Theranos-like scandal in Silicon Valley, Joel and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) live with Jessica's disapproving parents (Fenton Lawless and Charmaine Reedy) in New York. But things start looking up when Joel & # 39; s old friend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) reveals that he has founded a new startup called Empathy, Inc. The secret company creates & # 39; X-Treme Virtual Reality & # 39 ;, with which rich users can experience the lives of disadvantaged people. All that Nicolaus and his partner Lester (Jay Klaitz) need is a million dollars to get it off the ground.

Joel gets the money from his parents-in-law, but it is not surprising that the startup hides a sinister secret. Joel begins to wonder what is real – not only in the virtual experiences he enters, but in his normal life in which he is accused of a cruel act that he cannot remember. His wife, a struggling actor, is furious that he has brought her family's nest egg. And when Joel desperately tries to turn the roles on Nicolaus, he brings himself, his family, and everyone else at Empathy, Inc. involved is at risk.


Empathy, Inc. delves light into the trippy effects of its powerful technology. The titular startup evokes the real & # 39; empathy machine & # 39; genre of VR, which varies from serious psychological experiments to tone-deaf poverty tourism. (The goals of Nicolaus prove to be even more insensitive.)

But for Joel and others in the film, what technology can do is less important than its status as a spirit of time investment. The film does not portray virtual reality as a science fiction dream or dystopian nightmare, but as the kind of mysterious, buzzwords concept that analysts thrive alongside, & # 39; blockchain government & # 39; and & # 39; the Cloud & # 39 ;. It is a vicious but recognizable caricature of The place of VR in today's culture, not just the futuristic potential.

Empathy, Inc. & # 39; s black and white cinematography, cynical storyline and the occasional hard-boiled repartee give the film a noirish shine. And a few creepy, suggestive ideas spread the generally short VR sections, such as a solemn instruction to "avoid mirrors at all costs." his in-laws.

Joel is a boring nice guy who apparently was blinded by his role in a fraud prevention plan in Silicon Valley. But he refuses to leave a world based on hype and snake oil, and he is willing to drag other people with him. That also applies to his in-laws, who appreciate financial success and who are completely ill with the artistic efforts of Jessica and Joel & # 39; s gentle sympathy for the economically disadvantaged.

Photo: Dark Star photos & # 39; s

Numerous science fiction films are about the very rich who exploit the very poorest. Joel and his in-laws fall more realistically in between: successful enough to kick the people among them, but not rich enough to be completely isolated from their mistakes. Their social endeavors make them easy prey for Nicolaus, who plays Berryman as disarmingly handsome, and Lester, an unobtrusive, nerd nerd who unravels in something much darker.


Empathy, Inc. can be demonstrably too effective in piercing the mystique of his own world. It is a slow-glowing thriller whose characters are forcibly drawn, but difficult to root. The predictable premise sometimes helps shift the focus to interpersonal drama, but it causes characters to spend too much time figuring out twists that the public has probably guessed. Only in the last act, while Joel's life is in a disaster, does the action accelerate enough to match the plot.

Still, Empathy, Inc. uses a classic science fiction principle to investigate contemporary tensions about technology and social class. Is the empathy machine ultimately good or bad? It is never completely clear because Empathy, Inc.Revolutionary technology is just a smokescreen – it is money that forms the world.

Empathy, Inc. opens in theaters on September 13 and on VOD on September 24.