Sci-fi costs money. All those sets, all that tech. But there’s an honourable tradition of good lo-fi sci-fi that Lapsis fits into neatly. Films like The Signal, Attack the Block, Timecrimes and Monsters are only low budget in movie terms. Others (Skeletons, Thale) somehow get made for the sort of money most people could lose and not notice. All marked are with the ingenuity that springs from necessity.
The ingenious, inspired leap in Lapsis is to use tech that is genuinely rickety and old school – everything looks 1990s, from 8-bit computer screens to boxy hardware – and make its star a guy who is old school himself. Even his name is old school – Dean Imperial, a New Jersey, James Gandolfini sort of guy, plays Ray, a delivery driver with a hustler mentality and a sick brother, Jamie (Babe Howard), whose illness – ominously called omnia – forces Ray to take a job with the CBLR company laying cables for their new Quantum computer.
Whether we’re in some parallel reality or some 1990s imagining of the future fades into insignificance once Ray has been inducted into the job, which involves dragging what looks a repurposed golf cart across inhospitable terrain and unspooling massive amounts of cable, the end of which is to be plugged into a gigantic Quantum computer.
Humans are being used to do the work because robots, slow-moving and ungainly, tend to flame out, and there’s big money to be made, as long as you beat the robot. The humans are back-up.
Being in essence “a 1970s gangster guy”, as fellow cabler Anna (Madeline Wise), calls him, Ray has no idea how the tech works. At home he won’t have wi-fi and out here in the big outdoors every bit of tech he touches, tries to scan or fails to interact with forces him to interact with a fellow human.
It’s a convincingly built world and Imperial is inspired casting as the unsavvy, unfit Ray, whose “trail name” turns out to be Lapsis Beefsteak, a revelation that turns the film from sci-fi into thriller, with Ray as its suddenly a familiar central character – the dog-eared detective.
Until now Ray has been motivated by a need to raise money for sick Jamies, but suddenly there are other fish to fry. Writer/director Noah Hutton jumps through a number of narrative squeezes here, trying to point his film in a different direction, with Jamie suddenly no longer at home sick on the sofa but repurposed as Ray’s sidekick as the pair of them investigate the true identity of the shady Lapsis, the CBLR corporation and the connection between the two, which seems to be something to do with a new age health outfit.
If the overall look is old-school, the message is too, of a world of big megacorps and grasping health systems, even the guy running the alternative new age health outfit is a non-stop gush of buzz phrases, like “purity”, “small batch” “sourcing”, “authenticity”, a scaled-down, artisanal version of the sort of booster CEO-speak that CBLR are so big on.
This needle against ethical-sustainable-green messaging is mirrored by interesting developments among the CBLR cablers, with what looks like an embryonic militant unionism brewing, one with Luddite overtones.
It all makes for fascinating sci-fi with a political edge, and even if there are knees and elbows sticking out all over the place, Lapsis is a good small film. I suspect it’s a dry run for a bigger one, a grand dystopian epic. Until then we’ll have to make do with this cult nugget.
Lapsis – watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021