I recently became aware of a black and white, indie science fiction movie called Empathy, Inc. The more I heard about it, the more I felt the need to see it for myself, after all, the movie played many venues including the Austin Film Festival. Empathy, Inc. has been compared to indie hits such as Darren Aronofski’s Pi, and Primer. Bring it on, I thought.
Empathy, Inc. tells the story of Joel, played by Zack Robidas (“The Humbling”, “Arbitrage”) who bets it all by investing in a cutting edge virtual reality start up, but things get messy when he uncovers this companies secrets.
Joel follows the first rule of a venture capitalist….use other people’s money. Right on the heels of another “fake it before you make it” start up going belly up, Joel convinces his father-in-law to sink his savings into this new VR company.
At first, this seems like money in the bank. Joel tries this new technology “XVR” for himself and is amazed. This is more than VR, you can feel, taste and smell this alternate reality.
The service Empathy, Inc. plans on providing is giving the rich a glimpse at someone who lives a lower class life. At first I wondered who would want this service? Joel asks the same question, and Nic, the owner of Empathy, Inc. played by Eric Berryman gives a perfect answer. We often feel better when we consider other people who have lives way worse than our own. And even the rich can be unhappy, depressed.
The first half of Empathy, Inc feels very much like a business drama, very timely when companies such as Theranos and The Fyre Festival are the subjects of popular documentaries.
Then the second half, in a natural and surprising way, becomes steeped into a Sci-fi thriller territory. Empathy, Inc. is Pi meets Being John Malkovich. That is meant as a high compliment.
The scenes where we see the point of view from this XVR are very reminiscent of the tunnel vision look in Being John Malkovich. But later things get real! This VR is not what it seems, and it can have major consequences for the user. The overall visual style of Empathy, Inc. is well conceived.
The bold choice of making it black and white pays off dramatically and was clearly not an afterthought. The cinematographer Darin Quan composed a symphony of whites and blacks which fits the mood nicely.
The acting was strong. The man who developed XVR, Lester, is played with an offbeat comedic tone by Jay Klaitz (“Vinyl (TV)”, “Jessica Jones (TV)”). Joel’s wife, Jessica, is portrayed honestly by Kathy Searle. Jessica is a struggling actor, before you yell out “cliche”, this is a minor element in the movie and does not feed into the plot.
It was interesting to learn the origin of this project. Mark Leidner, the writer of Empathy, Inc. was interviewed on the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast and explained it. Leidner and the Director, Yedidya Gorsetman were thinking of what their second movie could be. This would be a follow up to their first feature, Jammed.
Yedidya loves finance thrillers like Wall Street or Wolf of Wall Street, while Leidner has always been a fan of the Sci-Fi genre. Empathy, Inc. was the result of combining the interests of these two collaborators. These very different elements were well balanced, much to the credit of these filmmakers.
True to form for an Indie film, Empathy, Inc. credits a few of Mark Leidner’s family as Producers and Executive Producers. These include, Andrew Leidner, John Leidner and Laura Leidner. These days you have to do all you can to get your movie made. As a filmmaker myself, I have to applaud the motivation that made Empathy, Inc. a reality.
Empathy, Inc. is small scale Sci-Fi done right. The movie delivers mind bending scenes of suspense. Gorsetman and Leidner have proved themselves as a bold new voice which demands to be heard. For fans of Sci-Fi, especially on the independent side, Empathy, Inc. is a must see.
You’ll get your chance to experience Empathy, Inc. for yourself, when it hits VOD platforms on 9/24.