Austin Film Festival Review: Empathy, Inc.

Mind-bending identity SF thriller disturbs and intrigues

Some days it feels like every indie genre film director wants to time travel back to the Eighties. With the cunning and cutting SF drama Empathy, Inc., director Yedidya Gorsetman has pulled a perfect piece of cerebral 1990s cinema into this decade.

Shot in a shadow-drenched black-and-white, with flickers of Suture and eXistenZ (plus their later progeny like Primer and Escape From Tomorrow), Empathy Inc. hides its true identity. That's fitting, since Joel (Zack Robidas) is trying very hard not to be himself. The story starts with him onstage quoting Hamlet, "To thine own self be true," before adding, "At least that's what I used to think."

That prelude is a flash-forward from the meat of the movie. Here Joel is a tech industry failure, asked to take the fall for a product launch and left to the excruciating mercies of his well-meaning in-laws. Enter Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), a man with a plan and a proposal: He's repping a startup called XVR, a wholly convincing virtual reality system that allows rich people to pretend they are living the life of some broke schlub. "People want to be rich," Nicolaus tells him. "What they want to feel like is different."

What unfurls next is a twisting ribbon of questions of identity and morality, all set against the sometimes shady world of tech investment. Call it a lo-fi sci-fi In the Company of Men, as Joel contemplates his morality as he convinces/scams his ex-cop father-in-law to risk his retirement savings on this unproven tech.

What Gorsetman and scriptwriter Mark Leidner have constructed is an intricate and incisive dissection of greed, vicarious living, guilt, and the precariousness of the American middle class (on top of all those SF references, drop in some Whit Stillman and Atom Egoyan). The effects may be a little homemade at some points on this microbudget endeavor, but the riches are hidden in a script that refuses to spoon-feed any answers to its metaphysical conundrums.


Austin Film Festival 2018, Oct. 25 - Nov. 1. Tickets and info at austinfilmfestival.com.

Find more of our AFF coverage, including news, reviews, and interviews, at austinchronicle.com/AFF.

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