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‘Empathy, Inc.’ Takes Virtual Reality to a Heightened, Thrilling Extreme

Virtual reality is the one of the hottest technologies in video games right now, but its potential applications elsewhere are even more interesting. Of course, being able to convey empathy to those significantly lacking it holds a particular importance when it comes to rich people ruining the lives of everyone else. Empathy, Inc. is all about greed and empathy, so when Joel (Zach Robidas) is screwed out of his venture capitalist job and discovers a new virtual reality product that rich clients are lining up to use, he can’t help but try to invest in the project. The ways empathy and greed intersect in this science-fiction thriller is what makes Yedidya Gorsetman’s film an interesting, exhilarating experience that feels like Nacho Vigalondo by way of Shane Carruth.

Shot entirely in black-and-white, Empathy, Inc. is barely interested in contending with moral grey areas. That’s mostly for the audience to wrestle with as they watch Joel plummet deeper into the dark recesses of Xtreme Virtual Reality (yes, it’s a silly name that the movie acknowledges as silly, but marketable). When Nicolas (Eric Berryman) offers Joel a chance to invest in XVR, he jumps on it by using the money his father-in-law has put away for retirement. What makes the technology so incredible is that it allows the client to take control of a poor person — something rich clients find enticing because of how different their lifestyle is. However, complications arise when Joel realizes that the experience may not be as cut-and-dry as Nicolas claims it to be.

Empathy, Inc.

Outside of whether the technology is morally right or wrong, Joel’s decision to use his wife’s father’s money to get back in the financial advisement game complicates his dilemma with his exploitation of the rich and unaware. Joel’s wife, Jessica (Kathy Searle), is trying to get her acting career booming while finding her own footing in the world, which is only further complicated by Joel’s complete disregard of her wishes, and his predicament worsens when the investment goes sour. While her relationship with Joel isn’t necessarily the focal point of the film, there’s a significance to everything in Empathy, Inc., and being able to jump into another character’s shoes in order to understand their reaction to the other is highly satisfying. This is ultimately what makes the movie work so well.

Empathy, Inc. is not without its flaws of course, but those mainly stem from Joel being a character who tends to walk more on the unlikable side of things. It’s really hard to get behind anyone that makes a selfish decision (like investing a family member’s money into an untested piece of technology), but Mark Leidner has written a great screenplay that feels like it fleshes a lot of what it needs to, and even tries to make Joel into a character you feel sympathy for. It also helps that Robidas conveys his character with just the right amount of smugness and love. Capturing that balance is crucial in a movie which asks the audience questions about their own actions towards the impoverished and suffering. Nevertheless, Joel being more likable would have exponentially improved the impact of those questions,.

Empathy, Inc.

For any missteps that are made, the film makes up for it with a tense final act where the story goes high-concept, yet somehow doesn’t spiral endlessly out of control. Keeping the science-fiction elements nice and neat seems like a daunting task, but just like with Vigalondo and Carruth, Gorsetman and Leidner know how to package it all tightly. The thrills come from that potential to overflow, and there are few movies in recent memory that highlight that balancing act.

With a highly entertaining premise that situates itself in a world that would believably latch onto it, it’s no surprise that Empathy, Inc. is an enthralling film. It feels ripe for a Black Mirror episode, but uses its extended runtime to encapsulate a world that desperately needs a little empathy in it. The idea of monetizing that feeling is inherently interesting, and it’s thrilling to watch someone run with it in the ways that Empathy, Inc. does.

Dark Star Pictures will release Empathy, Inc. in theaters (9/13) and VOD (9/24) this fall.


Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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