EMPATHY INC. movie poster | ©2019 Dark Sky Pictures

EMPATHY INC. movie poster | ©2019 Dark Sky Pictures

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz, Eric Berryman, AJ Cedeno, Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless, Karen Lynn Gorney
Writer: Mark Leidner
Director: Yedidya Gorsetman
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures
Release Date: September 13, 2019

EMPATHY INC. is a fairly smart, twisty techno fable. Although the movie has the feel of a classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, including its beautifully crisp black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Darin Quan’s cinematography), it has enough story to justify its feature length. What it doesn’t have, exactly, is the social resonance to fully justify its title, even ironically.

Joel (Zack Robidas) is finance guy who loses big-time when the tech company he’s been touting in Silicon Valley turns to be based on fake data. With his investment wiped out and his tail between his legs, Joel feels he has no choice but to move with his loving wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) back East to stay with her super-judgmental parents (Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless).

Then Joel is approached by former acquaintance Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who’s got a tech start-up going with programmer/inventor Lester (Jay Klaitz). Nicolaus and Lester call their project XVR. It’s designed, Nicolaus explains, to let wealthy users experience what it’s like to be an impoverished person in a flawless simulation that incorporates all five senses.

At this point, even viewers who haven’t read the log line may be suspicious. Of all the things to use that kind of VR for, this purpose sounds unlikely. However, after Joel insists on going into XVR himself, he is so amazed and invigorated by the experience of being another person that he agrees to help Nicolaus and Lester get funding. Maybe it’s actual empathy for the homeless, or maybe it’s just enthusiasm for what he believes is the basis of XVR, but Joel also befriends a the homeless Miss Miriam (Karen Lynn Gorney).

Joel seems to be on the verge of addiction to the process. Even though Nicolaus tells him XVR is for clients only, Joel takes it for an unauthorized spin that leaves him with a lot of questions. As Joel starts looking into what the company is really doing, he finds that things are not as they seem. Digging deeper increases Joel’s personal stakes until he’s in serious danger.

Mark Leidner’s script works better as thriller than science fiction. We may guess what’s going on, but there are still plenty of surprises. Some of these allow the lead performers opportunity to show laudable range. Director Yedidya Gorselman keeps the pace moving at a good clip. Wisely, the filmmakers give us an objective shot that shows us early on that, indeed, Joel is having an out of body experience. EMPATHY INC. is a movie that knows the difference between keeping us guessing and just being confusing, and staying on the right side of the equation.

EMPATHY INC. might be better still if it wasn’t trying so hard to make a socio-political statement. The notion that rich people exploit poor people is not exactly novel, nor is the concept that greed causes folks to do bad things. These are woven into the premise in any event. As the plot’s focus is really elsewhere, moments of trying to make these points more obvious come off as sincere but awkward as well as unnecessary.

Otherwise, EMPATHY INC. is an entertaining, smart low-budget enterprise, covering a lot of ground with limited funds.

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