Movie Review: VR start-up sells its customers “Empathy, Inc.”

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Science fiction doesn’t have to be pricey to put up on screen. There have been plenty of low-budget dazzlers — “Prime” in the U.S. (Utah, I think),  “Alien Raiders,” “Timecrimes” from Spain leap to mind.

All it took to make “Empathy, Inc.” was a couple of dentist’s chairs, helmets with a lot of wires attached, some outdated computer (code typing) graphics and a syringe.

It’s a black and white sci-fi chiller that doesn’t quite come off, doesn’t have nearly the sense of discovery or surprise you’d hope for in a story of the Next Big Thing in virtual reality (VR). But the effects, which include a black construction paper “mask” for the lens (shrinking the frame into unsettling DIY “virtual” vision), give it the grounding in reality that all such movies require from the get-go.

We catch up with Joel (Zack Robidas) just as his Silicon Valley start-up crashes. The scandal sends him and actress wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) “back East” to live with her overbearing parents (Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless).

Fleeing to a local bar is where he runs into old acquaintance and corporate fundraiser Nicoulas Veezy (Eric Berryman, sharp). Joel hasn’t forgotten the guy’s nickname, “Sleazy Veezy.” But he’s desperate. And Nicoulas has a pitch and a business card — “Empathy, Inc.”

A VR whiz he knows has dreamed up this “next step” tech that will allow “high end clientele to learn what it feels like to be underprivileged,” to gain “perspective.”

Rich people can “Walk a mile in the shoes of the less fortunate” and feel better about whatever they fret over in their own lives.

Okaaaaay.

Joel meets scientist Lester (Jay Klaitz, a creepier Dan Fogler) and gets a trial run, after first hearing “The Rules” (every horror or sci-fi film like this has them).

“Stay in the environment you wake up in. Don’t open any doors…Avoid mirrors at all costs!”

Side effects can include delusions and flashbacks.

Joel sits in a dentist’s chair, dons a helmet, gets an injection and wakes up in the (frame-masked) world of an impoverished old man. Dazzled, he talks his in-laws into investing.

But his second “trip” is even more disturbing. And things happened that he doesn’t remember. He starts to suspect that Sleazy Veezy and ill-tempered Lester aren’t telling him the truth.

Director Yedidya Gorsetman, working from a script by Mark Leidner, drops the masked lens conceit for Joel’s later “trips,” shedding the limitations of that First Person POV, but loses what’s unnerving about the process (your view and understanding of that view is limited and more alarming because of that).

We also shed the whole “avoid MIRRORS” thing too quickly for comfort.

That said, the screenplay sets up an intriguing journey to send its anti-hero on. Joel lacks the very thing that’s on that business card. He sees himself one way, and is puzzled when others say that he, or his avatar, is going out in the world and ill-using others.

Because Joel has been doing that in his business dealings for years.

The central question of the Empathy, Inc. pitch is “If you could be someone else, without consequences, what would you do?”

“Empathy, Inc.” (in limited release, Sept. 13) has the compactness of a Poe short story or a “Twilight Zone” parable.

But its third act surprises aren’t surprising at all. Suspense is created when the audience is a step ahead of the heroine/hero, not five steps ahead.

The violence that comes seems a contrivance. Desperate people have several hurdles to clear before they reach that “I’m going to KILL you” step, which the film deprives us of.

And in all honesty, the performances rarely rise to the occasion, although I bought into one or two moments of rage and a nicely played scene with pathos built into it.

Not a lot of money was risked on this one, which makes it easier to write off as “Nice try. Take another shot.” But I sincerely hope they do.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz

Credits: Directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, script by Mark Leidner. A Dark Star Pictures release.

Running time: 1:35

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