philip lelyveld The world of entertainment technology


Empathy, Inc. is a virtual reality thriller for an age of tech cynicism

VCs plus VR in a dark mirror of Silicon Valley

The new film Empathy, Inc. is nominally one of these stories. Written by author Mark Leidner and directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, the film premiered at the Cinepocalypse festival in 2018, and it’s getting a wider theatrical release this week. But Empathy, Inc. isn’t playing in the same field as mind-bending trips like David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ or the Black Mirror episode “Playtest.” It’s a tragedy grounded in the murky world of tech startups and financial hucksterism — a vision of Silicon Valley where everyone is simultaneously a swindler and a mark.

Empathy, Inc. can arguably be too effective at puncturing the mystique of its own world. It’s a slow-burn thriller with characters who are compellingly drawn but hard to root for. Its predictable premise sometimes helps shift the focus toward interpersonal drama, but it makes characters spend too much time figuring out twists that the audience has probably guessed. Only in the last act, as Joel’s life devolves into disaster, does the action speed up enough to match the plot.

Still, Empathy, Inc. uses a classic science fiction premise to explore contemporary tensions about technology and social class. Is the empathy machine ultimately good or bad? It’s never fully clear because Empathy, Inc.’s revolutionary tech is just a smokescreen — it’s money that shapes the world.

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