Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live a different life? To be someone else? If you had the chance, would you take it? Would you pay for it? Yedidya Gorsetman’s Empathy, INC. asks us to consider a world in which such things are possible. Where “walk a mile in his shoes” becomes more than just a turn of phrase...
...Joel (Zack Robidas) is an investor looking for a chance to bounce back from a Silicon Valley deal gone bad. His wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) is an actress looking to make her first big break on the stage. In an effort to save some money and start their lives afresh they move to the east coast to live with Jessica’s parents, tension-filled dinner conversation and all. One especially tense night, Joel leaves in the middle of dinner to go out for a walk, stops at a bar, and meets former business acquaintance Nicolaus “Sleazy” Leazy (Eric Berryman) with a new deal to offer. A deal, Joel decides, too good to pass up no matter who he has to grift to fund it.
The deal is this: if Joel can pay up, Nicolaus’s company will be able to provide a virtual reality experience with potential to improve the life of the user exponentially. Aimed primarily at the wealthy, XVR (or Extreme Virtual Reality) offers users the chance to step into the lives of the “underprivileged” in order to gain a better appreciation for their own lives and the things they have. The virtual experience feels real enough to drive the point home that the circumstances they’ve been taking for granted could be so much worse. Joel gets a chance to test the product before investing, and it changes his life in ways he could never have thought possible.
Shot in black and white, Empathy, INC. feels like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone. The idea of seeing things from an unfamiliar point of view is fundamental to the show, and the movie feels like a loving homage, complete with twists that turn the narrative of what you thought you were watching on its head. No movie is perfect, and Empathy, INC is not without its faults. Despite its ambitious storyline, the pacing occasionally feels like it drags. It sometimes has a bit of trouble balancing the plot lines between Joel and Jessica, though the parallels between the virtual reality experience and Jessica’s efforts to find herself as an actress are interesting. Despite its issues, I found myself thinking about the concepts this movie dealt with and the possibilities it presented hours after it was over.
The horror of this movie lies, for me, in the fact that this technology is made available only to those who can afford it—anyone less than uber-wealthy would never be able to have this experience—and those people seem unable to appreciate its true potential. Think Westworld, but just a little bit more terrifying. And, as Lester (Jay Klaitz), XVR’s extremely possessive and private engineer, says when Joel gets his test run, “Don’t believe everything you see.”
The questions this movie presents are fascinating, and even when it struggles it still powers through with a series of twists that left me pondering the possible consequences of abusing this tech long afterward. Even the way the opening and closing shots tie together make for great rewatch potential. Nothing is quite what it seems here. So, sit back, relax, and ask yourself: if you could be anyone in the world, who would you be?
Empathy INC. transports you to another life on VOD Sept 24th from Dark Star Pictures.
By Katelyn Nelson