The things we want out of life don’t often go the way we planned. Sometimes it feels like planning is just a way people go about trying to control an outcome. Even now, with apps, gadgets, and tech of all kinds at our fingertips, the notion that we can control our fate seems like a grand delusion devised by someone picking your pocket. Under a cursory inspection, this seems to be the point of writer Mark Leidner and director Yedidya Gorsetman’s futurist techno-thriller Empathy, Inc., which finds a protagonist’s life turned upside down after getting involved in a start-up touting a virtual reality experience unlike anything conceived. However, if you take a moment to really consider the themes presented, the truth of Empathy, Inc. reveals itself: the value of identity if you can be anything. On its own, the notion of exploring identity is a common theme in every story. What makes Empathy, Inc. extraordinary is the lengths it’s willing to go to push its audience to the brink of reason in search of the answer.
After being blamed for a deal gone wrong, venture capitalist Joel (Zack Robidas) and actress wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) leave the West Coast for her parents’ home back East as a means of finding some footing in friendly territory before trying to rebuild their lives. Feeling frustrated and defeated, Joel is relieved when he runs into an old associate, Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who just so happens to need someone like Joel to help drum-up capital for an invention he’s trying to get off the ground. The Xtreme Virtual Reality (XVR) system, created by anti-social neuro-engineer Lester (Jay Klaitz), enables the user to experience the feeling of being in the shoes of someone less fortunate which comes with the side-effect of making the user feel better about their own life. What first seems like a cash-machine for Joel turns into something dark and torrid as he learns just how XVR works and the terrible cost that it comes with.
“To thine own self be true” are the first words uttered in the film. Taken from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the line is part of a monologue by Polonius, advisor to the King and Queen of Denmark and father to Laertes and Ophelia. It’s a line he speaks to Laertes before he leaves the castle for a period of time and is meant to be a bit of wisdom to help guide the lad through the world. As the monologue continues, the quote suggests that as long as you’re true to yourself, you can never be false to anyone else. What makes this particular line interesting is how deeply this theme runs throughout Empathy, Inc., particularly if one were to consider that much of Hamlet is about uncovering the truth of a murder and Joel spends the bulk of the film trying to uncover the truth regarding XVR. In fact, in order to discover the truth, Hamlet covers himself in the aura of insanity so that he’s considered less of a threat. While it could be viewed as a throwaway line intent on grabbing the audience’s attention with a recognizable quote, this isn’t the only Shakespearian reference in the film, nor the only one to hint at a greater meaning. Jessica, after settling in at her parent’s place, is seen studying a manuscript for an upcoming audition. Though the glimpse is quick, the camera lingers long enough for the audience to get a sense of the dialogue she’s going over and the two names in the scene: Marvolio and Viola. These are two characters from Twelve Night, Or What You Will. In this play, twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked and separated, forcing Viola to dress herself as a man named Cesario so that she can search for her brother without concern for her safety. Amid the hilarity that ensues, there’s also a terrible darkness lurking as the “villain” of the story is punished by being tricked into believing that he’s insane and left to his tormentors. Empathy, too, plays with the notion of self-identity, even to a similar degree of taking an initially soft concept and giving it harder, sharper edges as the story play out. The concept of identity takes on an enormous thematic role within Empathy and its one that Leidner and Gorsetman attempt to explore just as deeply and darkly as Shakespeare, whose works they use as narrative guides.
The film doesn’t just open with a line from a play, it also opens physically with a play. Before we’re introduced to Joel, we see him on a stage talking about truth, identity, and connection. The scene is presented in black and white, an aspect that continues throughout the film. The opening and what follows are composed beautifully by director of photography Darin Quan (Diverge) so that each sequence feels like a nightmarish dream. The black and white simultaneously offers a sharp contrast, as well as a stark beauty, even as the story itself begins to blur the line between accepted reality and the far reaches of science fiction. Considering the film revolves around a start-up working technological magic, one can’t help but wonder if the black and white is also intended as a sort of visual binary. There are no grays here, only a clear black or clear white. Even as the characters engage in conflict, conflict which takes on various forms of psychological horror, the black and white palette establishes a visual foundation which grounds everything which occurs. Between Gorsetman’s direction and Quan’s lighting, each scene is gorgeous in simplicity, drawing in the viewer with seemingly minimal effort.
Discussing the visual and thematic style of Empathy can only go so far without an examination of the performances. Robidas plays Joel wonderfully. Given the current social climate surrounding financial planners and venture capitalists, it’s easy to perceive the character as greedy, yet he’s immediately made sympathetic with the way he approaches the initial failing which sends him and Jessica to her parents’ place. The character does have flaws, particularly as it relates to validation-seeking behavior, but Robidas grounds the character with a believable internal compass. As though in contrast, Berryman oozes charm and radiates a danger as Nicolaus. Of all the characters, the black and white style favors his the most as, in combination with camera direction, there’s a sense that any conversation Joel engages in with Nicolaus is like a deal with the devil. In their significant supporting roles, Searle and Klaitz lay an incredible amount of groundwork despite being given the least amount of time for the audience to get acquainted with them before everything comes together in the climax. Though the characterization of Jessica as an actress feels a little on the nose given the exploration of identity, Searle sells every moment without losing footing and falling into exaggeration. Rather, Searle imbues Jessica with a purity that the audience can’t help but presume is getting sullied with every choice Joel, for better or worse, makes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Klaitz as Lester is deeply unsettling in a multitude of ways and every bit is supported by the narrative so as not to feel like a stereotype. Particularly as Empathy plants itself deep into the sci-fi portion of the story, a great deal is required of Klaitz to maintain the momentum and he ends up being the center of a tension-filled storm.
It’s easy to get distracted by all the tent pole, major studio releases hitting theaters. No one can be blamed for missing the variety of films that hit theaters and video on-demand services each week. If you get the chance, don’t let Empathy, Inc. be one of those films you skip over. Beginning as a reasonable personal drama, it continues to evolve until it’s absolutely under your skin. The techno futuristic score by Omri Anghel (Stuck!) certainly adds to the intrigue, making you wonder just how far down the rabbit hole have you gone. By then, however, it’ll be too late. Some lessons just need to be learned in the Xtreme.
In theaters September 13th, 2019 and available on VOD September 24th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.