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Eric’s Nightstream Review: Lapsis (2020)


★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

A grifter with good intentions, but in need of a lucky break, signs up for a job that seems too good to be true. Lapsis is a dystopian parable for the treadmill of old-fashioned hard work and the fear that technology is going to make you obsolete.

Directed by Noah Hutton

At a time where good-paying blue-collar work is hard to find, where effort and hustle can get you ahead, falling prey to get rich quick schemes can be a real trap. The afterglow of the halcyon days of the dot.com boom, where you could get rich just by getting in on the ground floor of a new-tech startup company still has a draw. And it can be a trap as well.

For people who earned their keep through hard work and sweat equity, many of them missed out on that opportunity. And to throw salt on the wound, seeing young people with throwaway college degrees getting ahead while many of the older traditional labor jobs can prove demoralizing to a large swath of people.

This is where Ray (Dean Imperial) finds himself. He’s a schlubby con-man, who is low on book-smarts, but high on chutzpah. He has been making a living running a lost-airplane luggage scam, but when it appears that the Feds have caught wind of the operation, he is forced to change gears. His little brother Jamie (Babe Howard) has come down with a chronic lethargy that is being chalked up to a condition called “Omnia”, which Ray’s grifter boss noted, “Isn’t that the thing that’s all made up?”

Ray takes the responsibility for Jamie’s well-being and promises to get him treatment, but Ray doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t have health insurance. In desperation, he reaches out to a shady fixer contact named Felix (James McDonald), who lets him in on the new boom economy job, which is to be a cabler. It sounds too-good-to-be-true, as the promise of easy money for going into the pristine Allegheny woods to unspool cable to an electro-magnetic cube pays for each route completed. Easy enough. No training really necessary, just get a GPS and a spool of cable and follow a pre-assigned route.

This is something of a pyramid scheme, though. As hundreds of people head into the woods in search of a quick buck, but if they get lapped by an automatic drone cabler, they get NOTHING for their efforts. Ray is gifted an old “badge” by Felix, through shady means, as the ability to get badges has become very hard to get. Ray has acquired the badge of a notorious cabler named “Lapsis Beeftech”, which comes with a significant head start and a lot of scornful looks from his peers.

Jamie, meanwhile, has been checked into a dubious wellness clinic where for an exorbitant fee gets a series of questionable treatments for a potentially psychosomatic fake disease. The whole operation, from laying the cable, to the badging, to the Omnia, and the scam health care are all intertwined. But Ray clings to the hope that he has caught a lucky break, and soldiers on. Eventually, though, he discovers a number of the dark secrets and the reality of what is going on, through a fellow cabler, Anna (Madeline Wise). Anna is generous enough to show him the ropes and to lift the veil from his experiences, but she knows something is wrong with his story. Ray, now enlightened, is left with some big ethical choices as he is trapped in a cycle of corruption.

Lapsis is a wonderful allegorical tale. It’s Steinbeck for the 21st Century. Dean Imperial manages to thread the needle of a man who is a little gullible but is the victim of his desire to finally be on the right side of lucky. He is far from stupid though. He senses that there’s something amiss, and wants to be on the up-and-up, but gets assurances that everything will be fine… until it’s not. He and Anna make a great team, and the chemistry between Imperial and Wise is terrific. At first glance, Anna (and the audience) sees a bit of low level-mafioso in Ray, with his heavy Jersey accent and his curious code of honor. But once you realize that Ray is just an ordinary guy trying to finally get ahead in the game of life, you fall for his character.

The genre aspects are perhaps a bit broad and on-the-nose. There is very much a distrust about CBLR, the Comcast like monopoly that controls all the flow of incentives. You can see the foundations of conspiracy theories here as well. The flip side of the Steinbeck story is a more Orwellian plot that looks to crush the common guy, and the story is unspooled with just enough new information bit by bit, to add layers to the story and characters.

Noah Hutton and Cinematographer Mike Gomes shot and edited this film with one foot squarely in a near-reality, and the other in a weird fantasy vision. The absurdity of people creating cobwebs of coax cable in the scenic park is an imaginative trip, and the big magnetic cable relays are oddly magnificent. Hutton infused the script with plenty of fun winks and nods, and Imperial (in his first feature role) has lots of moments that will make you smile with his light humor touch.

Lapsis is very much a genre feature, but it plays very much as dark science fiction rather than horror. The little robots aren’t killers, but they are very definitely a threat to the well being of the characters. The corporate overlords aren’t out to kill the characters, but they are out to exploit them. The story is loaded with allegory and meaning and is devoid of jump scares. So, even though it is filled with dramatic tension, this is not a movie that will make you run and hide, but it just may be the best science fiction film you will see this year.

This film was featured in The Nightsream festival. It is not rated, but it would comfortably fit into a PG-13 rating. Language and sinister plots would be the only objectionable material.

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