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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Lapsis

This low-budget dystopian sci-fi satire takes on the gig economy, with sharp, savage and must-see results.
By Sarah Ward
June 03, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
June 03, 2021
  shares

9 to 5 and Working Girl hail from the genre. Everything from Office Space to The Assistant do, too. But films about working in offices, TPS reports and navigating the desk-based daily grind might eventually become a dying breed or a nostalgic retro curiosity. Because art always mirrors life, the gig economy may swoop in and draw the silver screen's focus instead. Sorry We Missed You already has in a resonant warts-and-all manner, and Lapsis now endeavours to do the same via a smart and searing sci-fi satire. There's much to ponder, probe and dissect about the mode of employment that's becoming the status quo, after all, and that isn't bound to change as it spreads and grows. Corporations don't just dictate workers' behaviour during office hours now, supplying a reliable wage and perks such as holiday and sick leave in return. Attempting to monopolise entire fields such as food and package delivery, transportation and caregiving, big companies (you know the ones) hire independent contractors, scrap the benefits, and keep them toiling on-demand or on-call just to earn the bare minimum. This new kind of technology-driven rat race has been normalised, and quickly — and what it means for the labour force, employment, capitalism, corporate greed, class structures and basic human rights demands to be interrogated in thousands of movies as sharp and scathing as this one.

In Lapsis and its alternative vision of New York, quantum computing is the next big thing. It requires a network of giant metallic cubes connected via thick black wires, with stringing them together the gig economy's new growth area. It's such an in-demand field and so lucrative for workers, in fact, that cablers can earn thousands of dollars just for a weekend's work. They can also pay off their mortgages within months — if the advertisements spruiking the supposed new employment dream can be trusted, that is. Technology-phobic delivery driver Ray Tincelli (first-timer Dean Imperial) is sceptical, so much so that he won't even use a quantum computer himself, even though they're essential to viewing up-to-date websites and just generally existing in Lapsis' parallel world. But his unwell brother Jamie (fellow debutant Babe Howard) suffers from a pervasive form of exhaustion called omnia, and requires expensive medical treatment. After finding a way into the cabling industry via acquaintance Felix (James McDaniel, The Deuce), Ray's need to make a quick stash of hefty cash quickly overrides his misgivings.

Ray doesn't drop his distrust of quantum computing and everything associated with it, of course. But, in trying to pay for medical care and just generally make enough money to get by, he's willing to compromise his ideals out of necessity — or he's forced to, really, given that he doesn't have any other options to take care of his brother and boost his finances. In choosing these motivations to drive his protagonist, writer/director Noah Hutton quickly taps into, caricatures and scratches away at the US today. Helming his first fictional feature after a decade of documentaries, including two about the oil industry, he keeps digging his claws into a society that treats health care as an optional extra for anyone who isn't wealthy, and thinks that basically working yourself to death is just how life should be if you haven't been successful enough in chasing the so-called American Dream. All of this pointed commentary exists in Lapsis' premise, and the deeper it dives into the cabling world, the more biting the film becomes. Hutton is playful, parodying the reality he's drawing upon, but he still sinks his teeth in — and hard.

As Ray quickly learns, his new form of employment involves hiking through gorgeously leafy surroundings to get from cube to cube, all while wheeling a cart between his magnetic start and end points. While the terrain is bumpy, the job sounds straightforward and even leisurely and enjoyable, but it definitely isn't. Different routes pay more than others, getting lucrative gigs isn't easy unless you've been at it for years, and competition is fierce between cablers. Also complicating matters: robotic carts that scurry along day and night, and can steal routes from humans by overtaking them. By design, they push flesh-and-blood cablers to work harder — or risk expending all that effort for absolutely nothing. Then there's the fact that when Ray checks in on the trail, using the medallion he's been given, it flashes up the name 'Lapsis Beeftech'. That moniker instantly inspires scorn from his fellow workers, with only acerbic experienced cabler Anna (Madeline Wise, Crashing) willing to explain why. She also talks Ray through exactly what he's gotten himself into, how the companies behind the job treat their contractors, the pushback during past attempts at unionisation and the small ways that cablers can get the upper hand over their mechanical adversaries.

Savaging both expensive and quack medical treatments as well — and the fact that they're the types that largely garner attention — Lapsis is undeniably dense in ideas. That said, it's never overstuffed or overcomplicated, and it doesn't spread its many insights and statements too thin. Indeed, as both a screenwriter and a visual storyteller, Hutton keeps striking a perfect balance. He layers his film with reflections upon much about work in the 21st century. He spins an involving dystopian tale, too. And, he doesn't let either the feature's loaded commentary or its involving world-building feel like it's dragging the other along with it, or dragging it down for that matter. Stepping into a high-tech world with a low-fi (and low-budget) approach, Lapsis' analogies might be clearcut, but they're meant to be. Like Sorry to Bother You, one of the other excellent movies of the past few years that tore strips off of so much that we've come to accept as standard, this is a shrewd film that's direct about its targets at every turn. It's also savvily crafted, stems from clear anger and overflows with surprises. The engaging cast, including the wily Imperial, is one such unexpected gem — and so is this astute, complex and compelling delight itself, including in its memorable final stretch.

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