There are horror movies with relatively small budgets (The Purge, 2013 – $3,000,000), ones with very small budgets (Last Shift, 2014 – $1,000,000), ones with micro-budgets (Starry Eyes, 2014 – $400,000) and ones with basically no budget, like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or the first Paranormal Activity movie (2007).
Empathy, Inc., an American sci-fi/horror film available on VOD from September 24th and in theatres on September 13th, belongs to the latter group. This is the second feature-length movie by Yedidya Gorsetman: it was made for only $30,000 dollars, it’s in black and white, it revolves around the concept of virtual reality.
In short, we follow venture capitalist Joel who, after a multimillion-dollar deal went up in smoke, is forced to move in with the parents of his actress wife Jessica. At the lowest and most desperate moment in his life, Joel meets old friend Nicolaus and his business partner Lester, who are seeking investors in a new technology known as XVR – Xtreme Virtual Reality – from their company Empathy, Inc., which is said to offer the most realistic and moving experiences for users by placing them in the lives of the less fortunate. Joel agrees to participate in the new start-up, but soon realise what the costumers are experiencing is something more than enhanced virtual reality…
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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My review is also available on IMDb – Empathy, Inc. (2019)
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Making a sci-fi/thriller or horror movie with such budget restrictions isn’t easy, but director Gorsetman perfectly understands to turn the disadvantage into an opportunity: one of the strongest aspects of Empathy, Inc. is the mystery that’s built throughout, where viewers put themselves into Joel’s shoes and try, with him, to find out what is really going on.
The puzzle we’re asked to solve leads to a very interesting message this movie tries to deliver, one that’s about identity and one’s place in society: who are you really? What do you want to be and to what extents are you willing to go to be successful? These might sound like surface-level themes, and sometimes they aren’t as fleshed out as you might wish for, but they’re handled in a rather subtle, solid way throughout the movie. And they never become the focal point, as that is the mystery throughout the entire picture.
Yet, Empathy, Inc. relies on a score only when strictly necessary. The soundtrack, which sounds very odd in a purposeful way, is utilised only during a couple of pivotal moments: this is probably due to how hard it is to get the rights to music, but the filmmakers (again) made the best out of their restraints.
Although some characters come off as one-note, the acting in the film is rather convincing. No one gives a performance for the books, but the lead characters are good enough for the role and their personalities have been written in a very competent way: their motivations are understandable and, while Joel evolves over the course of the 96-minute-long runtime, his character manages to begin the journey as a stuck-up douche and to end it as a sympathetic, relatable man.
Another aspect this movie really stands out for is the editing choices. The transitions from one scene to another are always clever and serve a purpose, giving the overall story a certain coherence that helps the flow. So does the camera work which, while not exceptional in any way, is very competent and well thought-out.
The same can’t be said for the cinematography, however. The use of black and white, here, feels more like a gimmick (or rather a tool to hide visual imperfections) than a purposeful technique to enhance the story. This is particularly dreadful during the first 20 minutes of Empathy, Inc.: this movie really struggles with its first act, as the actors seem clumsy, the dialogue forced and the cinematography too digitalised.
Also, Empathy, Inc. suffers quite a bit from pacing issues, with various moments being either too hasty or too elongated. This brings to a problem with the story itself as it struggles to create any peak of tension, aside from a very impactful ending. There’s quite a bit of dead air in this film, which makes you wish for either a shorter runtime or some more interactions between the main characters.
Empathy, Inc. is an interesting little movie, based on a concept full of potential. There’s plenty of aspects to appreciate in the film but also quite a few issues that hold it back from being a true independent gem. All things considered, it’s a good movie that, hopefully, will open new doors for Gorsetman: an interesting filmmaker that deserves to work with more.
Empathy Inc. 6/10
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