[Brooklyn Horror Film Fest] REVIEW: EMPATHY, INC.

Is it just black and white that makes a film noir? Can film noir only be set in the past, or at least a futuristic approximation of the past made anew? Does it have to involve drunkard detective and femme fatales, or can the genre encapsulate even the most mundane of careers? If you were to go by the textbook definition of film noir, it’s cinematography is marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. And if three words were to describe the mood of Empathy, Inc. they would be just that.

But that doesn’t mean Yedidya Gorsetman sophomore effort is purely film noir, though the impeccable black and white cinematography by Darin Quan would definitely make that implication. Light and shadow are used in such a way that the film could only have been conceived with this color palette in mind. There’s a sense of effortless unease that only black and white can attain, and when it’s transformative as this, the muted colors only heighten the danger. Of losing your job, your wife, or worse, even your own body.

Empathy Inc follows Joel (Zack Robidas) a financial advisor who was just thrown under the bus by his board of directors over an investment on hydrogen power energy that proved to be based on fraudulent studies. Not only does he lose his job, but also his reputation, respect, and eventually dignity as Joel and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) are forced into living with his In-Laws until he can get back on his feet while his wife pursues acting ambitions. By a stroke of good fate, Joel runs into an old friend, Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who promises him an investment that not only will regain his reputation, but financially put him back on the map. The product: XVR, or Extreme Virtual Reality. It’s meant to be unlike any type of VR any consumer has ever seen before, offering realer than life experiences for those wishing to see how the other half lived. As his friend explains, it’s like when you are having a bad day, then you realize your neighbors child has died. All of a sudden: your day doesn’t look so bad anymore. Actually, it’s a downright fantastic day. But everything has a catch, and as Joel begins to unravel the intricate web at the heart of Empathy Inc, the film will take some logical leaps that are quite powerful and unexpected.

Empathy Inc will most assuredly be described as lo-fi Black Mirror, but in actuality it bears far greater relation to The Twilight Zone than mere dark sci-fi. Most notably it harkens to the story ‘Time Out’ in Twilight Zone: The Movie. In the segment the racist Bill Connor angry for being passed over for a promotion finds himself traveling through different moments in history, experiencing what it is like to be on the other side of bigotry. He’s shot by Nazi soldiers, lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually put on a train towards a concentration camp. But unlike XVR, Bill Connor can’t return to his body afterwards. This lands at the heart of what Nicolaus explains XVR is for: for the fortunate to feel what it’s like to be less fortunate. While i can only imagine the detached condescension some people would have in virtually putting themselves into another persons shoes, we actually have already begun seeing something like this in modern virtual reality. Storytellers have been using VR to tell stories about police harassment to the struggles of immigrants in the United States and abroad. But we’re not supposed to feel better about our own lives in this simulation, but rather helps viewers learn to empathize with a story that is so far from their own.

The film also feels remarkably like the gradual progression of lo-sci-fi started by Shane Carruth’s Primer. While not filmed in black and white, the colors are equally as muted and the science fiction isn’t explained. We don’t need to know how XVR, or Primers time travel, works. The concerns are what happens after we open this Pandora’s box. And in the case of Empathy, Inc, it’s unable to be closed ever again.