By Ezra Haber Glenn
Lapsis’s tone is humorous and light, but the issues addressed are serious, from the exploitative and dehumanizing aspects of the overhyped gig economy to the dangers of unfettered “progress” and naively optimistic futurism.
A satirical sci-fi fable from indie director/screenwriter Noah Hutton, Lapsis is perfect for home streaming to channel (or perhaps exacerbate) your gnawing anxieties at a world slipping into antihuman automation and free-market desperation.
Set in a mildly dystopian future that pretty closely resembles our mildly dystopian present, the story follows Ray Tincelli (Dean Imperial), a down-on-his-luck “regular guy” from Queens who is struggling to get by — and maybe just make a buck — in a world increasingly dominated by robots, GPS, and apps driving an economy dependent on decentralized, exploitative gig-economy competition.
Ray is increasingly desperate to earn enough to pay for the increasingly expensive treatments required for his brother Jamie (Babe Howard), who is suffering from a new chronic fatigue–like syndrome known as “Omnia.” So he falls in to the absurd Wild-West world of freelance “cabling.” Hooking up with a shadowy contact named Felix (James McDaniel), he obtains a medallion and a start-up cabling kit, which allows him to access lucrative bid-contracts for laying wire for a comically irrational global network of quantum computers. (In exchange, of course, Felix expects a cut of all future revenue; we begin to recognize a pyramid-scheme pattern, somewhere between a protection racket and an Amway business.)
The job, it seems, has a catch: there is, in fact, real money to be made for cablers who complete the most difficult routes — but the stakes are high and competition is fierce. The company grants the biggest payouts for the completion of tricky routes through the remote wilderness (which mostly resembles a scrubby New York State Park). But, to cash in, the cablers must race to stay ahead of robot drone installers, constantly nipping at their heels, partly because they are cabling on straight through the night. Ray soon falls in with an anarchistic band of rogue Luddite gig workers determined to level the playing field and strike a blow for the humans. (And as an added wrinkle to increase the tension, we learn that Ray’s cabling medallion seems to have had a previous, potentially infamous owner…)
The tone is humorous and light, but the issues addressed are serious, from the exploitative and dehumanizing aspects of the overhyped gig economy to the dangers of unfettered “progress” and naively optimistic futurism. For those who fear that this all sounds too preachy and anticapitalist left-leaning, the film provides a range of equal-opportunity satire: beyond the obvious soft targets of corporate greed, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and the manifest destiny of technology, the film also takes some amusing (and fair) jabs at New Age homeopathy, conspiracy theorists, fear of 5G-wireless and other invisible threats, ecoterrorists, camping gear, uptight suburbanites, and even the treatment of chronic fatigue. Part of what makes the film work so well is the balance provided by Ray, who comes off like a befuddled Tony Soprano stuck in an episode of Mr. Robot meets Black Mirror.
One warning: the end is a bit of a mess, as the film races to try to tie up all its wide-ranging threads to provide some sense of closure. But hey: if these inherent contradictions have been baked in over centuries of capitalism, it might take more than a 90-minute movie to sort it all out.
Lapsis was an Official Selection, 2020 SXSW, and won a Jury’s Choice Award at the 2020 Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. If you missed the film on the Brattle’s “Brattlite” streaming platform, you can still catch it — along with a special Q&A — as part of the DC Labor FilmFest Screening, hosted by the AFI Silver Virtual Screening Room.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in the the New York Observer, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, the Journal of Statistical Software, Experience Magazine, the Arts Fuse, and Next City, and he is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine. Follow him on UrbanFilm and @UrbanFilmOrg.