New Sci-Fi Releases: Empathy, Inc. (2019) - Reviewed

Low-budget, black and white science fiction can be a lot of fun and, depending on the creative team behind the given project, a lot better than most big-budget films currently gracing our screens. Empathy, Inc. is one such “small sci-fi” film that mostly succeeds despite some problems along the way. 

It’s hard to ignore the style of director Yedidya Gorsetman, whose camera angles are just slightly off enough to make you uncomfortable. In many scenes, the camera rests in the corner of a room and pivots back and forth as characters interact, making us, the viewers, feel as though we too are observers in this twisted world. 

The idea behind Empathy, Inc. is the promise to wealthy clients that they can spend time literally walking in the shoes of the poor and homeless through virtual reality. The promise is that money corrupts empathy and this technology will help the wealthy regain what they’ve lost. How nice.

Zack Robidas stars as Joel, who was up until recently doing quite well for himself in Silicon Valley at a major technology company. After he loses everything when the company goes under, he and his wife, Jessica (Kathy Searle), move back east with her parents. Eventually Joel finds out about Empathy, Inc. and becomes addicted to the rush that the technology offers after he takes a spin using it. However, it quickly becomes apparent that spending time in the bodies of supposed simulations might be more real than Joel thought. 

It’s a fun premise and one that has been done many times before. Empathy, Inc. manages to have just enough of an original spark through its style (kudos to Gorsetman), who seems clearly influenced by Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, as well as Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. When Joel first uses the technology and wakes up in the body of someone else, the small view-finder-like way the camera acts as his eyes combined with the beautiful black and white cinematography is a lot of fun and very disorienting (in a good way). 

Where many movies have trouble with the second act, Empathy, Inc. really builds its momentum until the third act, which somehow feels simultaneously rushed and stretched out, as if Gorsetman, along with screenwriter Mark Leidner, were trying to jam in all their ideas at once, but didn’t quite know how to get to the ending. It’s a small problem in an otherwise intriguing movie, and one that I won’t hold against it. 

You could say, in other words, that I have a tremendous amount of empathy for this film and the creative team behind it. 

--Matt Giles