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. While his boss is setting him up to run the business, Ray is in need of an influx of income. His younger brother Jamie (Babe Howard) is suffering from a chronic-fatigue illness called Omnia, which, like the name suggests, is basically the opposite of insomnia.
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 hike 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 sticking to the rules. Afterwards, his shifty associate Felix (James McDaniel) will take his 30% cut.
The late-night campfire chats when the cablers pitch their tents for the evening are reminiscent of the camaraderie at the elderly wanderer meetup in 'Nomadland'. Cabling is something like the gold rush - trekking through the American wilderness, stringing fibre optic cables from cube to cube, and collecting payment once the lines are completed. The more routes you take, the higher-valued new routes become. It's all kept track of and administered 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 a self-contained economy of points that can be used to purchase food and equipment 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 less thrilled when scruffy workers show up.
Ray 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.
Hutton keeps an iron grip on its ideological tiller, creating a series of scenes in which capitalist exploitation and individual freedom collide to remind you that the people in power are not, and never will be, your friend.
He learns even more once he strikes up a friendship with Anna (Madeline Wise), a veteran cabler attempting to essentially 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 steal their route and take their money. They're the bane of the cablers, who scheme to derail the little machines. Despite his best efforts to keep his head down and continue earning, Ray is quickly embroiled in a larger plot to instigate a worker revolt.
Look, 'Lapsis' fucking rules. It's like one of those low-budget 80s cult movies that used to get made - the ones that took wild chances and clearly didn't give a solitary fuck. 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 wanders, Hutton keeps an iron grip on its ideological tiller, creating a series of scenes in which capitalist exploitation and individual freedom collide to remind you that the people in power are not, and never will be, your friend. The wit underpinning that structure never relents, creating a film that does all the shit that great science fiction is supposed to do: flip a middle finger to escapism, and craft a world that serves as a dark mirror for our own.
During the coronavirus epidemic, freelancers typing away at home and gig workers risking exposure out in the field have felt the strain more harshly than most, with many stranded in a no man's land between diminished rates of incoming work and ineligibility for unemployment benefits. The number of real-world people coping with the same unenviable situation depicted on screen in 'Lapsis' continues to grow, and they get a sympathetic surrogate in the film's protagonist, Ray. His many tribulations lay bare just how dire making ends meet can be when working for companies like Amazon, Uber, and other real-life equivalents to CLBR.