While technological advancements have made modern life invariably easier, it has not come without significant cost; from increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, to an increasing reliance on a merciless gig economy, many have questioned what the cost of convenience ultimately is. The best works of science-fiction are not only capable of imagining strange, infinite worlds, but also at reflecting or challenging our collective notions about humanity. With Lapsis (2020) writer-director Noah Hutton utilizes the genre to take aim at social issues from the increasing wage gap to our failing healthcare system; the result is a film that feels less like some farfetched fantasy than a possible glimpse at our future.
Set in a parallel universe, Ray (Dean Imperial) is an analog man in a quantum world. Looking every bit like a Sopranos bit player, Ray is a hustler who (barely) makes ends meet as a driver returning lost luggage. While trying to keep his head above water, Ray also cares for his half-brother Jamie (Babe Howard) who suffers from a mysterious illness called omnia, a disease with no known cause and a variety of debilitating symptoms. In order to pay for his treatment, they need more money than they can come up with, so Ray turns to shady fixer Felix (James McDaniel) to get him into a job laying cable for a new quantum system being built.
Despite his discomfort with both technology and strenuous exercise, Ray takes to the woods with a spool of black cable on his back and a “medallion”, a small handheld device that acts as a credential for the trail. Similarly to app-driven companies, the cabling job promises flexible hours, freedom, and the ability to make as much money as a person can stand to work for. Ray does his best to keep his head down and stay to himself, but as he is drawn toward a huge payday, a series of encounters with the rebellious Anna (Madeline Wise) force him to confront the dark underbelly of his new vocation.
Imperial is a strong performer, and he inhabits the coulda-been-a-contender Ray with both humor and pathos. While he often seems to operate in a gray area, there is little doubt that Ray is on the side of the angels, and when the film calls upon him to act as its moral center, Imperial carries the message, and plays off his screen partners (namely, Wise) in a convincingly empathetic and understated manner.
Much of the rest of its success is owed to the subtle, but very convincing world-building. While the society of Lapsis has clearly advanced beyond ours, it is a recognizable world, and filled with enough familiar details that at times, it feels less like allegory and more like a warning. Hutton clearly has a lot to say about class, privilege, and the exploitation of the worker, and the film is emblematic of David swinging way above his weight class to remind Goliath never to count out the little guy.
It is a clever genre trapping to deliver a timely message, however, once it builds to its crescendo, it seems to end abruptly. Perhaps the ambiguity was meant to impart a deeper meaning, but it could not help but leave this writer feeling slightly unsatisfied, particularly when the rest of the film remains so engaging. As a result, the whole falls a bit short of its potential, while it remains an interesting film, and marks Hutton as a fiction filmmaker to watch.