The following movie was reviewed as part of Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2018.
Black-and-white independent science fiction thriller Empathy Inc. recalls the tradition of the classic television series The Twilight Zone in its tale of a man going from bad-off to far worse when a high-tech opportunity presents itself. Always compelling and entertaining, this merging of lo-fi, analog-style technology and human nature at its best and worst provides plenty of social commentary to go with its eerie chills.
Venture capitalist Joel (Zack Robidas) becomes the sudden fall guy when a start-up business collapses, leaving him broke and disgraced. He and his aspiring actress wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) reluctantly move across the country to move in with her parents (Charmaine Reedy and Fenton Lawless), who let the couple know over their initial, very uncomfortable dinner together that they have their own ideas as to what Joel and Jessica need to do at this point.
When Joel is informed by old acquaintance Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) of another start-up needing capital to get up and running, he goes against his wife’s wishes and convinces her father to invest the older couple’s retirement money in the project, which uses extreme virtual reality to have rich people feel what it is like to be a poor, desperate person, with the goal of becoming empathetic with the plights of those less fortunate.
Joel tests out the project, and is impressed by it. Project developer Lester (Jay Klaitz) and Nicolaus refuse to let him try the process again, which leads to Joel treading down a dangerous path and making dark discoveries.
Empathy Inc. is more story driven than character driven, though Mark Leidner’s screenplay offers points about the masks humans wear, and the great divides between the haves and the have-nots. He explores the dangers of dabbling in the extreme virtual reality situation created by Lester, providing some nail-biting moments that sometimes border on harrowing. Director Yedidya Gorsetman helms the film with a solid eye for suspense while slowly unraveling the mysteries of the virtual reality project and its consequences, as well as Joel’s ever-downward spiral. Darin Quan’s cinematography is terrific, giving the film a quality reminiscent of Pi (with which this movie would make a fine double-feature) and Eraserhead. The ensemble cast is solid, with Robidas’ well-meaning Joel, Berryman’s slick and calculated Nicolaus, and Klaitz’s bordering-on-paranoid Lester standing out.
Fans of low-tech, independent science fiction efforts and of classic series such as the aforementioned The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits should find plenty to enjoy in Empathy Inc. It is a nifty chiller that is worth seeking out.
Joseph Perry is one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast (whenitwascool.com/up-hill-both-ways-podcast/) and Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast (decadesofhorror.com/category/classicera/).
He also writes for the retro pop culture website That’s Not Current (thatsnotcurrent.com), Diabolique Magazine (diaboliquemagazine.com), Gruesome Magazine (gruesomemagazine.com), Scream Magazine (screamhorrormag.com), Ghastly Grinning (ghastlygrinning.com), and several other print and online film critique and pop culture magazines.
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