The low-budget, idea-driven corner of science fiction genre has become a crowded place in recent years. “Lapsis” is the latest entry worth seeing and arguing about. Written, shot, directed, edited, and scored by Noah Hutton, and filmed on location in real locations in New York City and forests upstate, it’s a rare American feature that not only dares to be a satire, but manages the subtle fluctuations in tone that good satire needs. Focusing on a lost luggage deliveryman who gets pulled into what looks a lot like a global ponzi scheme, the movie presents a desperate “New Economy” that’s a lot like ours, but with a few key details changed. Then it keeps us chuckling at the believable absurdity of it all, even as its characters—our stand-ins—are exploited and abused and try to fight back against the forces that make their lives so difficult.
Dean Imperial plays Ray Micelli, a working class Queens resident who quits his baggage delivery job and starts working for CABLR, a global company that hires people to walk through depopulated areas, unspool lengths of black cable, and plug them in what look like huge black Rubik’s Cubes. CABLR is affiliated with Quantum, a company that appears to be on the verge of claiming a monopoly of computer hardware and software throughout the world. It seems as if the cables are needed to connect Quantum servers to each other, and to all of their devices, but Hutton keeps this part intentionally vague. His script takes its cues from David Mamet screenplays where people expend prodigious amounts of energy trying to get The Good Leads or understand The Process, as well as from science fiction-adjacent thrillers where there’s a briefcase or or a car or an ark with something in it that everybody wants.
What’s important here is that—like everybody Ray ends up working with in the forest—CABLR promises economically desperate people a pathway out of their misery. Go forth, Americans, their explanatory videos exhort, and drag spools of cable around in the woods, and if you maintain a certain pace and hit certain marks by certain times of day, you’ll get a better route and more money next time.
Ray needs a major cash infusion because his little brother Jamie (Babe Wise) requires medical treatment for Omnia, a disease that’s like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which the brothers’ mom died of) but far worse. A neighborhood character named Felix (James McDaniel) offers to sell Ray a “medallion” that he needs in order to start working for CABLR (like the taxicab medallions that cabdrivers have to purchase from certain city governments). But there’s a catch: this medallion is still in the system but inactive, and in order to possess it, Ray has to promise to give Felix and his associates thirty percent of whatever he makes.
Then Ray has to go into the Allegheny Mountains and lay miles of cable, which won’t be easy because (a) he’s a first-timer who’s going to be competing against people with much more experience, and (b) the job requires him to hustle through woods for days on end, going up and down hills and sleeping in tents on the ground, and Ray is a soft-bellied, middle-aged man who looks as if his main form of exercise is raising a beer can to and from his mouth; and (c) participants are shadowed at every step by robots that looks like a cross between a dog and a tiny coffin, and if the robot beats them en route to the next cube, their pay is docked and opportunities are withdrawn.
The filmmaker does a phenomenal job of setting up this world and its characters in a natural-seeming way, smuggling mountains of factoids into what are framed as ordinary conversations. Notice, for instance, the long scene between Ray and Felix in a neighborhood coffee shop—a Christopher Nolan-level info dump that feels organic because of how it’s written and performed: as if it’s just a couple of guys jawing over lunch. Once Ray gets into the woods, Hutton repeats this trick in conversations between Ray and other CABLRS (including Madeline Wise’s Anna, a labor activist who’s trying to recruit people for a union). Because Ray is new to this job and this terrain, it makes sense that he’d be asking so many questions. It’s a clever storytelling trick that’s perfect for the film as well as for its leading man. Imperial is a 1970s style character actor/lead who has some of the beefy neurotic Everyman energy that Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini used to radiate in their indie film projects. We learn and grow (and grow angrier) with Ray as the extent of the corporation’s evil comes into sharper focus, and the actor lets us feel Ray’s moral and political awakening rather than constantly indicating it.
The CABLR processes have been fully imagined as well. Hutton draws on news reports about the blandly sinister expansionist attitude of Google (there’s an equivalent of Google’s in-retrospect-meaningless “Don’t be evil”) as well as tales of Amazon’s exploitation of drivers and warehouse workers (CABLRs carry handheld devices that chirp at them to “challenge your status quo!” and warn them that they’re going off-route, or that they shouldn’t stop because they haven’t earned a rest yet). Spidery drones soar or hover overhead, watching the worker’s progress and getting ready to drop replacement cable bundles or new monitoring robots. I’m guessing that we’re five years away from all of this being common. Oh, hold on, there’s a robot at my door, I’ll be right back.
Unfortunately, even as “Lapsis” exceeds your wildest expectations for low-budget sci-fi world building, it doesn’t do as much with those details as one might’ve wished. There’s a conspiracy wrapped inside of all the enigmatic rushing-about, and once all that moves to the center of the story (about two-thirds of the way through the film’s compact, 105-minute running time) a bit of the specialness leaks out of the project. This is partly due to the fact that the main characters finally exercise some agency and start to seem like they’re on the brink of exposing the truth, sticking it to The Man, and effecting real change, but the film has done such an outstanding job of cultivating a low-level, vaguely Kafka- or “Brazil“—like sense of grinding yet hilarious despair that it feels weird, and frankly false, when we’re not in that headspace anymore. It’s as if somebody had sculpted a beautiful and perfect death’s head mask and then turned the corners of the mouth up with a Sharpie marker to make it smile.
Still: what a movie! If you made a Venn diagram of influences that included Ken Loach working-class-rage pictures like “Sorry We Missed You” or “I Daniel Blake,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” and Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” “Lapsis” would land smack-dab in the middle. That’s a hell of a great spot for a first time feature to be in. No wonder it doesn’t know what to do with itself.