Don’t be put off by the defiantly (yes, I mean with defiance) low-budget production values of Empathy, Inc. You’ll get used to the awkward framing of scenes that feel like they were filmed on a narrow-lensed camera phone, and the black-and-white photography more than makes up for it. This is a film in which story and performances are key, and both are quality.
Being primed by Black Mirror, I now expect any story about the potential pitfalls of technology to dig a bit deeper – both socially and psychologically. Sadly, Empathy, Inc. doesn’t do either – the focus is more on the action-thriller aspect, which is fine, but maybe know that going in.
The plot concerns Joel (Zack Robidas), who has lost everything after an investment went catastrophically wrong. His reputation is tarnished, his house purchase failed, and now he and his wife have to move across the country to live with her pushy but well-meaning parents. At a bar, Joel runs into an old friend who encourages him to invest his in-laws’ retirement fund (yikes, yikes already) into a too-good-to-be-true VR start-up.
Now… Maybe I’m just not wired that way because I don’t see the point of risky investments, but gambling with your significant others’ parents’ retirement money – aka all they have – on a VR bet with a guy you KNEW used to be shady is a stupid, stupid plot set-up. I have more sympathy for the guy from The Special at this point. But the movie’s creepy tone, confident pace and twisty plot corners keep proceedings fresh. There are questions of identity, reality and consent, and I could see this working well as a horror anthology episode but, as aforementioned, it’s all a bit too superficial to have any lasting impact.