The gig economy has workers (as independent contractors) doing discrete, short-term tasks - or "gigs" - for companies via digital platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber or Airbnb. As one study describes them, these are "labour contracts that are as temporary as is possible for them to be". Few films have explored this controversial free market system yet. David Koepps's 'Premium Rush' and Adam Mason's 'Songbird' romanticised it, Ken Loach's 'Sorry We Missed You' excoriated it, and Chloé Zhao's 'Nomadland' kept it in the background while her protagonist drove through majestic landscapes ("great money" was the extent of the film's insight about the e-commerce giant, Amazon). Noah Hutton's 'Lapsis' takes the science fiction approach of Mason's film and shares the inquiring intellect of Loach's film, combining them into something fascinating.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Ray (Dean Imperial) is a blue-collar, middle-aged character, with the wise guy air of Viggo Mortensen in 'Green Book', working for a shady delivery company. His boss is setting him up to run the business, but Ray needs cash fast. His younger brother Jamie (Babe Howard) is suffering from a chronic-fatigue illness called Omnia.
Insurance won't cover Jamie's treatment, so Ray takes a job with CLBR, a tech firm whose quantum computers need human beings to hike through the woods and use cables to physically connect the ominous, monolithic cubes that power the technology. As an Australian, my thoughts immediately went to my country's National Broadband Network (NBN), a lumbering disaster that began as an ambitious effort by the government to construct a countrywide broadband network and upgrade from copper to fibre optic cable. But I digress.
Ray gets a coveted cabling medallion with the username Lapsis Beeftech and begins a weekend trek through the woods, laying cable. Ray is told that he can make as much money as he wants simply by working hard, keeping up with deadlines, and operating within the rules. Afterwards, his untrustworthy associate Felix (James McDaniel) will take a 30% cut.
Late-night campfire chats occur after the cablers have pitched their tents for the evening, reminiscent of the camaraderie between the elderly wanderers in 'Nomadland'. Trekking through the American wilderness, stringing fibre optic cables from cube to cube, and collecting payment once the lines are completed - there is something resembling gold fever to the feeling of a "free-for-all" in income mobility. The more routes you take, the more valuable new routes become. It's all tracked by the medallion, which is a personal data device and GPS.
Gradually, confining restrictions and incentives are introduced by CLBR. These include prescribed rest times, allowances on bathroom breaks, and points that can be used to buy food at franchised shops at campsites along the hike. The cablers store their gear in the garages of middle-class people who live near the woods, a transaction facilitated by a fictional Airbnb-style sharing economy service; these people are happy to profit from storing backpacks and boots, but seem non-plussed by the scruffy labourers.
Ray, a middle-aged urbanite, is out of his element and uncomfortable with technology. To make matters worse, people start giving him funny looks whenever they hear the name "Lapsis Beeftech" coming out of the checkpoints along the trail. As it turns out, there is a bit of a backstory behind the mysterious cabler who previously owned Ray's medallion.
Even as the film's comedic tone ebbs and flows, Hutton keeps his ideological compass pointed in the right direction.
He learns even more once he meets Anna (Madeline Wise), a veteran cabler attempting to unionize her co-workers. CLBR uses tiny doglike robots as pacers for its human workers; if a robot passes them on the trail, it can takeover their route and therefore their money. They're the bane of the cablers, who scheme to derail their mechanical competitors. Despite his best efforts to keep his head down and continue earning, Ray is quickly entangled in a larger plot to instigate a worker revolt.
Look, 'Lapsis' fucking rocks. It's like a low-budget 80s cult movie, taking wild chances and shirking off any predictability. The dialogue and characters are clever and funny, while the gradually unveilled conspiracy plot, unobtrusive cinematography and creepy score create intrigue. Alex Cox's blue collar sci-fi classic 'Repo Man' springs to mind, as well as modern low-budget dialogue-dense science fiction flicks such as Boots Riley's 'Sorry to Bother You' and Jake Schreier's 'Robot & Frank'. Like Shane Carruth's 'Primer', the scientific mechanics of cabling make little sense, but 'Lapsis' isn't concerned with explaining the logic of its quantum computing empire. Instead, it focuses on interrogating the structures aligned against the disenfranchised.
Even as the film's comedic tone ebbs and flows, Hutton keeps his ideological compass pointed in the right direction. Scenes of capitalist exploitation and individual freedom are constantly clashing together to remind the audience that the people in power will never be your buddy. The wit underpinning these scenes never relents, creating a film that does all the crap that important science fiction is supposed to do: says "fuck you" to escapism, and serves up a world that acts as a dark mirror for the one around us.
During the coronavirus epidemic, freelancers typing away at home and gig workers risking exposure out in the field have felt the strain more heavily than most. Far too many people are stranded in the purgatory between lowered rates of incoming work and ineligibility for unemployment benefits. The number of real-world people coping with the same grim situation depicted on screen in 'Lapsis' continues to swell, and they get an everyman hero in the film's protagonist, Ray. His many trials and difficulties lay bare just how shitty making ends meet can be when working for companies like Amazon, Uber, and other real-life equivalents to CLBR.