There is an unavoidable truth rooted within the form of narrative fiction—the way a story ends, the final 10%, can matter much more to how it’s received than the 90% that preceded it. While otherwise messy works can sometimes be rescued by a satisfying and/or surprising conclusion, the reverse hardly ever happens. A bad ending almost always spoils the whole. That may not seem fair—getting a movie to the finish line can require Olympian levels of inspiration, passion and hard work from hundreds or even thousands of people, after all—but it’s nonetheless part of the particular alchemy of moviemaking. In the case of Empathy, Inc., this unfortunate calculus claims yet another victim in what is otherwise an ably executed sci-fi thriller with an intriguing premise.
Recently bankrupted venture capitalist Joel (Zack Robidas) and his wife, Jess (Kathy Searle), are forced to temporarily (they hope) move in with Jess’s parents (an almost satirically condescending Fenton Lawless and Charmaine Reedy as dad and mom-in-law, respectively) while they try to figure out their next move. Despite his wife’s very reasonable request to leave her parents out of investing in yet another risky tech startup, Joel selfishly convinces her father to pony up for a seemingly revolutionary VR experience, Empathy Inc. Despite the reassurance of partner/hype-man Lester (Jay Klaitz) that a test drive isn’t necessary—and despite the warnings of the developer himself, Nicholas (Eric Berryman)—Joel insists on personally vetting the tech, which seems too good to be true.
The introduction of these characters and the central premise is quite absorbing. The small cast all acquit themselves well, as suspicion and tension mount. Director Yedidya Gorsetman (Jammed) makes deft use of the often-claustrophobic space and menacing shadows that more than justify the choice to present the film in black and white. So far, so good. When the big story twist is revealed in the movie’s second act, the audience is fully on the hook for a taught little thriller.
Then comes the third act. On the heels of a crackerjack setup, bristling with low-key menace, our hero finds himself in too deep and needing to find an escape, or get one over on his pursuers. It’s here that the film’s momentum abruptly ceases as about five movies’ worth of plot is dumped on the road in front of it. This creates a morass of would-be mind-fucks that renders the swiftly paced mystery into a turgid pileup of conceits looted from shipping containers stored on the good ships Total Recall and Inception. When the credits roll, the viewer is likely left wondering ‘What just happened?’ but not in the good way.
For a movie that initially tastes like an unexpected treat, it’s especially disappointing that Empathy, Inc.’s third act sours and leaves a bitter aftertaste. Maybe human memory is ultimately the real problem here—even the most flawless Olympic routine is forgotten if the performer face plants at the end (or else, remembered for the wrong reasons).
Director: Yedidya Gorsetman
Writer: Mark Leidner
Starring: Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz
Release Date: September 24th, 2019 (VOD)
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.