Dreams of escaping the rat race get a witty, sci-fi spin in Lapsis, a film righteously attuned to the creeping horror felt by those trapped in the gig economy, and gallantly carried by its unexpected blue-collar hero Ray Tincelli (newcomer Dean Imperial).
Hailing from Queens, Ray is an out-of-touch, middle-aged everyman in the mould of Louis CK or George Costanza, whose scuzzy appearance — slicked back hair, aviators, a white singlet revealing a gold chain and a swathe of chest hair — is described by one character, only half-jokingly, as giving off a “70s mobster vibe”.
A semi-Luddite, Ray might be imagined best at home behind the counter of a bar or a greasy pizza joint. It’s little surprise that he’s bewildered by the quantum computing revolution that’s swept over his Black Mirror-esque alternate present.
This places him conveniently as a proxy for the audience, a chatty conduit asking anxious questions about the intricacies of this uncanny world — the first of several savvy moves from the young American writer-director Noah Hutton that elevate his brainy debut narrative feature.
A miasma of precarity and paranoia enshrouds Lapsis — which is just one of the reasons this dystopian satire feels uncomfortably close to the world we know today.
Ray is working a dubious dead-end job while supporting his zonked-out kid brother Jamie (Babe Howard), who suffers from a strange, chronic fatigue-like disease that requires horrifically expensive medical treatment.
The familiar atmosphere of financial uncertainty and imminent doom drives Ray on to more desperate means.
Seduced by the promise of fast cash, he enlists in the nascent “cabling” industry, in which solo human hikers become “engines in the global quantum trading boom” — hiking a route defined by a hand-held GPS “medallion” (similar to the devices used by taxi drivers, or the bracelets worn by Amazon workers) while hauling a heavy, garden hose-like reel that lays down a trail of fiber-optic cable in its wake.
“I know I don’t look it, but I’m in really, really great shape,” Ray reassures his unconvinced brother.
Ray’s new job as an independent contractor for the CBLR company takes him to Allegany State Park in upstate New York, which has evolved into a hub for cablers — some more friendly than others — who have embraced this line of casual work.
This leafy paradise becomes the staging ground for demanding physical labour; the CBLR sales pitch of “well paying jobs and a breath of fresh air” is shown up by the image of Ray, sweat-drenched and panting, while his medallion abuses him for taking a break: “Rest denied! Rest denied!”
The medallion’s psychotically chipper sound effects are just one element of the film’s archly evocative sound design; alongside the trilling of birds and the maddening squeak of Ray’s cable reel trundling through the woods, there’s the buzzing of what sound like insects, but turn out be drones, peering down from the blue summer sky.
Even more thrilling is the sight of the grey automated carts who compete with the humans for their routes.
About the size of a toy poodle, they’re both adorable and sinister; their endlessly whirring, curved, spidery legs amble along the trail paths, pushing their exhausted human rivals past breaking point.
Are they a sadistic mechanism for ramping up productivity, or a harbinger, suggesting this time we occupy is merely a liminal phase before human workers become entirely obsolete?
Where dystopias like Brazil (1985) envisioned hell in terms of Orwellian state control, Lapsis sees our lives regulated by near-invisible, insidious global corporations (reinforced by A.I. surveillance) who incessantly chip away at workers’ basic benefits and rights.
Despite the small budget, Hutton — whose previous documentaries investigated the oil industry’s effect on local communities — has imaginatively brought this parallel world to life.
In the scenes where Ray approaches the hulking electro-magnetic box (a steel-coated construction the production could only afford to build two sides of), the images seem to freakishly warp at the edges, suggesting a reality as unstable as that of 2018’s bouncier political parable Sorry to Bother You.
Of course, there’s a mysterious backstory to the industry, which Ray slowly uncovers — thanks to an acerbic seasoned cabler he befriends named Anna (Madeline Wise). She enlightens him about the Wall Street traders getting rich off his back-breaking work, providing a sneaky crash course in income inequality along the way.
And yet for all its Adam Curtis-style class warmongering, Lapsis remains resolutely comic, and light-hearted — largely thanks to Imperial’s shabby magnetism — which is perhaps why the people-pleasing ending to an otherwise biting work of social critique so badly disappoints.
Rather than any incisive political message, the most fascinating take-away from the film is the curious image of a lone automated cart, puttering up a suburban street.
Is it an innocent creature, just doing what its profit-hungry makers have programmed it to do? Or does the machine possess a mischievous intelligence, suggesting that it could violently turn on humans at any time?
Only time will tell.
Lapsis is in cinemas from June 3.