Ben’s Breakdown | Take a surprising look into hi-tech VR startups with “Empathy, Inc.”

Meet Joel. He is by all appearances a successful businessman in Silicon Valley and is about to take the company he’s been working with to multi-million dollar status. Unfortunately, the deal evaporates along with his dreams of avarice, and with only the clothing on his back Joel, along with his wife Jessica, travels back east to live with her parents until they can get back on their feet. It is there he has a chance encounter with an old school mate of his who, along with his tech partner Lester, is looking for financial backers for a startup that deals with extreme Virtual Reality. Joel buys into it, but things aren’t what they seem to be.

Empathy, Inc. is a very slick looking film that is directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, written by Mark Leidner, and stars Zack Robidas as Joel. The initial concept that Joel is sold is that there is a lack of empathy in the world, and that by giving people a virtual reality experience where they are far worse off than in their own lives that it might help to be more grateful for what they have, and also show more kindness and generosity towards those less fortunate. That concept comes strongly into play as Joel visits, and then re-visits, the chair that provides these experiences. It is here that the story takes some unexpected turns. Initially, I thought this would turn into a film that blended the ideas of science fiction genius Philip K. Dick and filmmaker David Cronenberg with some of his mind-bending science fiction movies. As Joel’s situation becomes increasingly worse the idea that he is, in reality, living out the virtual reality program kept coming to mind. However, Gorsetman chooses to take this film in an entirely different direction and delivers a film that is very “noir-ish” in style (the entire film is shot in black and white) and is instead more focused on how start-ups work, and the depths that some people will go while chasing for that proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow.

There is much to like about Empathy, Inc. For starters, cinematographer Darin Quan’s work here is so sharp with his use of black and white that the images end up being burned in your eyes and your mind. This shows the power that can come from using black and white and even hearkens back to some of the strong contrasting use of light and shadow as seen in Citizen Kane. All that director Gorsetman had to do from here on is work his cast, and some of these actors are quite solid. Starting with Jay Klaitz as tech nerd Lester, his role is probably the most deceiving. We initially see him as some overly paranoid genius who is terrified about how his tech works, but underneath all of that lurks something quite a bit darker. Klaitz manages to get those dark elements to pop up in just the right places, but it isn’t until later where those layers are peeled back to show what he’s really made of.

Kathy Searle, as Jessica, is another actress who manages to trip up the audience with her intense, and yet subtle, performance. She is initially just a housewife with aspirations to be a stage actress, even if it is only with local theater companies. But as she becomes embroiled in some of Lester’s more nefarious plans, Searle is finally released to deliver a performance that perfectly transitions from kind and loving to something that is beyond creepy but still manages to keep it completely believable. As for Joel, much of what Zack Robidas has to play with is fairly standard, but that’s to be expected given the kind of person that Joel is. He does have moments where he can pull out other sides to his character due to the exposure that Joel has with the virtual reality, but in the final act, we get to see a variety of performances out of him that would certainly give pause to any person looking to get risky with morally questionable start-up companies.

This is a very well made film. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I was putting too much stock into the idea of it becoming more surreal, but I do admit to being both surprised and impressed that Gorsetman chose a different artistic approach with this story. In the end, it didn’t fully resonate with me, despite the many strengths this film has.

For not going the cerebral route of a Philip K. Dick story, but having the courage to try something different, I give Empathy, Inc. 3.5 out of 5 VR Chairs.

Empathy, Inc. is out in theaters on 9/13/19, and then VOD 9/24/19.

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