Noah Hutton’s sci-fi satire of the gig economy wraps wry humor around a sly critique of the daily grind.
(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. While the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)
Like a lot of indie science fiction, writer/director/composer Noah Hutton‘s Lapsis takes place in a five-minutes-from-now sort of future, one which looks like if the Apple II-era ’90s suddenly leaped forward into quantum computing, and the rest of the world was left behind. But the allure of Lapsis isn’t in its retrofuturism, but in the way Hutton melds these technologies with a dark sense of humor about the consumptive nature of capitalism. The technology may change, but workers will still owe their soul to the company store.
Meet Ray (Dean Imperial), a schlubby middle-aged worker whom one character accurately pegs as having a “’70s mobster vibe”. He’s a bit of a Luddite when it comes to technology; his standard computers get him in trouble in a world that’s already transitioned to quantum computing, making him feel even more like the world is moving away from him.
But as his little brother Jamie (Babe Howard) suffers from a fictional fibrosis-like disease called “omnia” and bills pile up, Ray finds himself shunted into the gig economy, taking a gig as a “cabler” whose job it is to painstakingly run cables through a mysterious forest to an enigmatic “quantum box” that helps run the world’s new computing system. He’s out of his element, but he’s aided by his black-market medallion, taken from a man named Lapsis Beeftech, who has heaps of points Ray can spend on the company store (and personal videos of his family to ponder over).
The technology may change, but workers will still owe their soul to the company store.
In this first half of Lapsis, Hutton takes his time establishing and setting up a droll, lo-fi future world with intriguing parallels to our own. We’ve all known a Ray, or been one: technology moves so fast, and corporations have no patience or loyalty to their workers, leaving a mass of people scrounging for scraps in industries they know nothing about. Whether you’re a Lyft driver or an Amazon warehouse worker, you’ll recognize the unending hustle the graphics-heavy apps and points systems with which Hutton’s fictional company pushes its workers. The hefty vocabulary and opaqueness of the company’s inner dealings are thick but intentional — we’re just as confused as Ray is as to how the whole thing works. And big companies, particularly the one at the center of Lapsis, rely on that confusion to manipulate you.
As the film chugs on into hour two, it loses a bit of momentum but deepens its sense of class consciousness. Ray comes in contact with another cabler (Madeline Wise) who opens his eyes to the shady dealings of their host company — especially as their work is threatened by automated cabler bots, a neat little practical robotic effect Hutton finds plenty of inventive ways to use. Imperial and Wise have wonderfully wry chemistry, and the former is a particularly unconventional protagonist — a middle-aged grump in a tank top and gold chains caught in the middle of a corporate sci-fi dystopia. Hutton’s script is insightful and class-conscious but wrings out unexpected bursts of humor from its characters.
While we may be in the middle of a work drought right now, Lapsis‘ concerns with the all-consuming nature of the gig economy, and the invisible malice of huge corporations, are presented in a unique way we haven’t quite seen before. For all its shaggy corners, Hutton’s immaculately-constructed world gives us a look at a world not far from now, when our every move — even our names — can be commodified, just another part of the hustle.