If you were given the chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, how much would you be willing to pay for it?
In this day and age, when so many people refuse to open their mind to the experiences and struggles of others, the world would certainly benefit if we understood each other more often. However, many fear that being compassionate would mean being taken advantage of by those who seek to profit off the kindness of strangers.
So before you turn out your pockets to get a taste of that warm fuzzy feeling of helping another human being, you might want to watch Empathy, Inc.; a grim tale of what can happen when empathy is sold as a commodity. Empathy Inc. is directed by Yedidya Gorsetman from a screenplay by Mark Leidner.
Joel has hit rock bottom. He is being accused of fraud by investors after he finds out that a project he helped finance for millions isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Through no fault of his own, the project implodes. Penniless, Joel is forced to leave Silicon Valley and return to the East Coast with his wife to live with his in-laws. While at a bar back home, he bumps into his old friend Nicolaus, who tells him about his exciting new tech startup in need of investors. Nicolaus explains that the project offers clients a perspective through the use of “Xtreme Virtual Reality.” Wealthy clients will be able to temporarily embody someone of a less privileged class, so that they can appreciate what they have upon exiting the simulation.
Joel is intrigued, but wants to see the product for himself. Nicolaus is cautious because the technology is still in its beta stage, but agrees to show him. He brings Joel to his base of operations and introduces him to his partner, Lester, the computer wiz of Empathy, Inc.
They strap Joel into a rudimentary chair and place a helmet on his head. Joel then wakes up on a dirty mattress in a small dingy apartment. His hands are frail and blackened with grease. He has been transported into the body of an ailing old man, with nothing but a few cans of food and a scrawny black cat for company. Minutes later, Joel is back in his own body, yet his worldview has completely shifted. He strides home overjoyed, giving money to a homeless woman on the way.
After convincing his father-in-law to invest a large sum of money, the company begins to pick up. But Joel can’t stop thinking of what he experienced in the simulation and wants to give it a second test drive. When Nicolaus tells him that once was enough, Joel sneaks into their facility late at night to strap himself into the chair one more time. Joel’s curiosity about the mechanics of Empathy, Inc. lead to the unraveling of its dark nature. Having realized too late that he’s in too deep, he must fight to get his money back and hold onto what remains of the simple life he was once had. The third act is filled with twists and turns, some more predictable than others.
For a movie based on the terrifying innovations of technology, Empathy Inc. manages to tell a compelling story without relying on special effects. Its success is thanks to the elastic acting ability of its ensemble, particularly Jay Klaitz’s unexpected performance as Lester. The black-and-white aesthetic also helps set the mood. I suspect that the director must have taken advantage of the grayscale and used chocolate syrup for the blood, like Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho. Combined with a message warning of the dangers of technology, Empathy, Inc. comes off like an episode of the Twilight Zone (Rod Serling era), or for the more contemporary viewer, an episode of Black Mirror. A triumph of a independent cinema, sure to garner more praise at more film festivals.
Empathy Inc. screened at the 2018 Cinepocalypse festival at the Music Box theatre in Chicago. Check out more of Nightmare on Film Street’s Cinepocalypse coverage here!