Empathy, Inc. (2018)

Empathy, Inc. first published by Little White Lies, as entry 103 in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

“To thine own self be true.”

These are the words that open Empathy, Inc. – but the speaker on stage is not Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet addressing these lines to his son Laertes, but rather a man directly addressing an audience. “At least that’s what I used to think,” Joel Eastman-Green (Zack Robidas) continues, “Of all the different people we are inside, who are we to be true to?”

In this way, from the very beginning, director Yedidya Gorsetman’s second collaboration with writer Mark Leidner (following their 2014 feature debut Jammed) clearly sets outs its thematic stall, while mystifying its own context. For Empathy, Inc. is clearly going to concern itself with personal identity, alterity, and the varied rôles that we embody in our daily lives – although at first, as it flashes back to Joel with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) at a low point in their lives, it is unclear how this theme is going to play out. Sure, Jessica is a stage actor, well used to walking around in others’ shoes – but main character Joel is a Silicon Valley fund manager, raising capital investments for a miracle start-up, and despite knowing his way around a salesman’s pitch, is hardly at home in the world of impersonation.

After Joel’s latest project has revealed itself to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors (with Joel fooled as much as everyone else), he loses everything – his job, his home, his professional reputation – and so he and Jessica have little choice but to leave the West Coast and move in with Jessica’s retired parents Ward (Fenton Lawless) and Vicky (Charmaine Reedy). Joel runs into old schoolfriend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) who is, with engineer Lester (Jay Klaitz), seeking backers for ‘the next big thing’ – their new tech called  XVR (or ‘Extreme Virtual Reality’), “realer than anything that anyone’s ever seen”, which allows “high-end clientèle to feel what it’s like to be underprivileged”. Nicolaus explains, “People are miserable because they forget what they have. Me and Lester help them remember.” 

Once Joel has tried on the elaborate headset, and woken up temporarily in the body of someone else, he is hooked. “I feel more like myself than I have in a really long time,” he explains to Nicolaus. Yet after persuading Hank and his friends to sink their life savings into Nicolaus’ company Empathy Inc., Joel starts questioning the motives of his new business partners, and wondering if the vicarious experiences on offer might in fact be something rather different from – if no less extraordinary than – virtual reality.

Like the start-up company from which it takes its name, Empathy, Inc. may be a modest, low-budget operation, but it nonetheless accommodates some very big ideas: on the one hand, paradoxes of self and otherness, the Cartesian split between mind and body, and the ethics of personal responsibility; on the other, consumerism, exploitation and the vicarious nature of entertainment. Much as the protagonist comes with a double-barrelled surname, the identity of the film itself is also double, divided between science fiction and film noir (the latter marked by Darin Quan’s crisp monochrome cinematography and by a preoccupation with the sleazier, more shadowy side of human nature), even as Gorsetman works through concepts that are all at once philosophical, psychological and even social. 

While the implications of Lester’s technology are mind-boggling, his low, appetitive imagination limits his discovery’s application to a system of abusive rôle- (and power-)play at the expense of the impoverished and the marginalised. This makes for an uncomfortable allegory of our own economic reality, where for their own perverse gratification, the haves all too readily make puppets and playthings of the have-nots. Even more confrontingly, Lester’s tech, in which a seated customer is briefly transported to another life, is also of course a reflex for cinema itself – that transformative medium of seductive illusions where we sit and enter other worlds and other minds, with or without our empathy incorporated. Gorsetman has crafted a smart speculative thriller that captures our most unpleasant impulses, freed from direct consequence through the filter of make believe and play acting. Where we go with this experience is a question of character – because none of us can really help but to our own self be true. 

© Anton Bitel