Back to VMDIFF it is, for something altogether different than the first film I took in from the festival. Perhaps a bit too dramatic last week when I said that the return of the Dublin Festival was a chance to pretend like COVID isn’t happening. After all, watching a film through your laptop will never be the same as a cinema experience. But, even once COVID is gone, it may well remain one of the default experiences for film. The world has changed, and to some degree we can’t ever go back. That was on my mind a bit as I settled into this one, a film about corporate efforts to profit off the work of the physical toil of others, not all that unlike the way major studios and distributors seem to be pivoting to stream at home models for more than just the short term.
But I digress, though I might come back to that idea before the end of this one. Lapsis comes from a director I have never heard of, featuring a cast that, for the most part, I have never seen before, with a premise that, being kind, seems tailor-made to be written as over-wrought and on the nose. And yet, I really wanted to give it a go anyway. Low budget science-fiction – very low budget, I am assuming – will always intrigue me in a way that other low budget genre pieces just don’t: maybe because it is inherently something that has to be more creative with its budget if it wants to actually be science fiction. Lapsis had plenty of opportunity to wow me, but was it able to? I caught a screening through the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
In a different version of our world, “quantum computing” allows for super fast network speeds, but can only be accomplished by the work of “cablers”, men and women who spend their weekends carrying the necessary wiring through the American wilderness. Needing money for his ill brothers treatments, Ray (Dean Imperial) embarks upon a career in cableing through a shady contact, and rapidly discovers how bizarre and exploitative the occupation really is.
So, I think that a film like Lapsis really does live-or-die based on how will it is able to get across the allegory that is it its very heart. Sometimes films can do this really well, like with X-Men or The Day The Earth Stood Still and sometimes, in my opinion anyway, they can do this very badly, like with Snowpiercer. Lapsis is a movie that is taking a very firm aim at the gig economy, corporate exploitation of those on the bottom rung and a larger system that seems hellbent on increasing debt and limiting opportunities. The allusions to Google, Uber and most especially Amazon (Ray gets chided by his “CABLR” device if he takes unauthorised rests, though he never gets as far as him peeing in a bottle). These are all worthy targets, but the manner in which Lapsis goes about hitting them with the metaphorical hammer sometimes feels more like a real hammer is being used.
I mean, this is a presented universe where the “CABLR” company (naturally it’s a subsidiary of an even bigger tech company) have figured out how to use small robots to do the cableing for them, but still employ people to do it, sometimes with huge paydays for doing so, with the robots instead forming a sort of evil motivational tool, meant to keep the flesh employees working harder. The point that the film is trying to make is clear as daylight, but the manner in which it does so is, to be blunt, a little laughable at times. This level of translucent allegory is the kind of thing that is worthy of a total fantasy story, and not the more grounded, realistic world that is presented here. All it’s missing is a 21st century version of “Sixteen Tonnes” (there is even a company store you can possibly own your soul to), to really go with this ponzi scheme where time is the investment. And it’s also maybe a little too grounded in the real world: this could be a film about Deliveroo drivers without too much in the way of changes really. Essentially, Lapsis struggles o find the middle ground between being too upfront about what it is skewering and being too distant.
But I did still enjoy Lapsis, despite that. Imperial is something I have no experience with but he does a good job here, perhaps because the character’s jaunt through the woods with internet cable is borne out of a very understandable desire to help his brother through his CFS (the treatment of which forms a sort of side-allegory/criticism of the heath care system in America and private operators who prey on peoples desire to help their loved ones). He isn’t a half-bad audience surrogate for this bizarre, and at times hard to swallow, world, and if there is something that the set-up does get right, it is the manner in which the Ray character allows himself to be swept up in the gig economy world of cableing, with its micro-transactions, manipulative goal setting and ability to keep people right at the edge of always needing more money but not wanting to quit. Some juicy personal drama is injected by Ray’s use of the ID of a “Lapsis Beeftech”, from where the title of the film comes, a sort-of semi-legendary cableing Quisling, who once sold out his fellow workers to make the company’s lives easier, and that Ray now finds himself inadvertently associated with. People recoil when they meet Ray and learn his “trail-name”, and trying to find out just why does add a little something to Lapsis to keep you hooked.
Madeline Wise, playing a sort of trade union agitator that Ray meets on his second day, is similarly decent, appropriately under-stated and well-versed in the arguments that she makes against the cableing industry, even as she works as part of it. Her back-and-forth with Ray, which does come close to lecturing the audience but at least it is a worthwhile lecture, is one of the films most entertaining aspects, as Lapsis goes beyond the bare minimum in making sure the audience is educated in just how exploitative these kinds of late-stage capitalism ventures really are. It isn’t just a matter of greed, it’s the dehumanisation that goes with it, and the efforts to normalise a system that is essentially just legalised class warfare. Oh, and lets not forget the companies themselves and their insidious efforts to claim “We’re all in this together”: a mid-film video from the CBLR CEO, dressed up in the worst kind of faux-“woke” language is a great set-piece.
Of course it is fair to say that film collapses a little under the weight of that sort of lecture system: once it is made, and the absurdity of what cableling represents outlined, there’s little left for the film to really go. A deus ex machina-type resolution to the cable companies exploitation – that, naturally, Ray finds himself at the very heart of, for reasons that are not very well explained – seems like a very odd insert into the second half of the film, and then things are tied up in a neat little bow all too quickly. Some of the final scenes are actually flat-out bizarre in their pursuit of a happy ending, that doesn’t really fit the larger themes and ideas of the film at all, and goes into a more traditional structure that simply doesn’t fit. Other minor characters or even no-name character drift in and out of the film, and while they add a little bit to the world-building side of things, they form part of the frustration with the film, where the larger universe is potentially interesting but not rightly explored. And the brother character, who suffers from a condition called “omnia” – a sort of chronic fatigue syndrome writ large, that several characters indicate is fake – reduces rapidly in important as the film goes on, with the viability of illness left to our imagination.
Of course this is low-budget independent cinema so we shouldn’t expect too much on a visual front. Lapsis looks fine, the sort of grainy mumblecore effect is evident throughout. There are frequently some issues with lighting during interior scenes, especially in the first act, that are a bit odd, but then the vast majority of the film takes place in the glorious nature of upstate New York, and this is captured this quite well I think. There’s a good dichotomy between the lush greenery and the strange, alien cubes that litter the landscape, and the way that black cables litter every pathway. The robots that are a major focus of the entire thing are basic but interesting looking, and I think that Lapsis does capture something, through its cinematography, of the need for workers to stand together to increase their strength in dealing with unfeeling corporate overlords.
There are some nice little moments otherwise, like the perfectly pitched orientation video that tries to sell prospective cableers on the abuse of workers rights they are about to step into, the way that the camera is able to turn the always-moving robots into figures of dread or the last shot of the film which, without spoiling, is a good metaphor for the ouroborian nature of the gig economy and the capitalist masters who perpetrate it. Director Noah Hutton had a unique and interesting working model for how Lapsis was filmed, which I encourage people to check out: while it is hard to envision it being implemented successfully on a large-scale production, it still provides a model for how such things should be done.
So, it’s a mixed bag. I liked Lapsis a hell of a lot more than I liked something like Snowpiercer, that took its allegory and wrung it out to such an extreme point that it was difficult to see it as anything other than a carton. But Lapsis has its problems too. The higher message is caught up in this science-fiction world that struggled with fridge logic, and it some ways it’s better when the film has characters literally just outlining the points that the creators are trying to make. The last 20 minutes are weak, and there are a few shooting issues at points. But it’s well-acted, well-scripted for the moments that really matter and, to be frank, I will always appreciate a movie that is attempting to skewer late-stage capitalism, in all of its hideousness. Lapsis does that in spades, so I have more time for it than I thought that I would have. For fans of of this kind of low budget sci-fi, it’s something that I have to give props to, and plenty of others will find something if worth in it as well, in a film that lands somewhere between Snowpiercer, Office Space and Sorry We Missed You. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Film Movement).