Nightstream Film Festival 2020: LAPSIS: Taking A Hammer To Our Broken World

Deep in the woods, there are cubes. Enormous, ominous chrome cubes, with dozens of cables jutting out of them like potato batteries. The cubes are the most arresting images in Noah Hutton’s Lapsis. A smart sci-fi chiller showing at Nightstream’s Virtual Film Festival, Lapsis has more on its mind than just tech.

Those chrome blocks are hubs for fiber-optic cables, part of the burgeoning new industry of quantum computing. We never really learn what quantum computing is, why it’s popular, or how it works, though, because Lapsis is more humanist than that — the film focuses on how the industry hits the gig economy and further exploits workers with nowhere else to turn.

A Ray Of Sunshine

When we meet Ray (Dean Imperial), he’s taking care of his sick younger brother, Jamie (Babe Howard). Jamie’s got omnia, the same “chronic fatigue disorder” that killed Ray’s wife. They’re getting some New Age-y treatments at a care center, but Ray’s having trouble paying the bills, until he gets a job as a cabler.

Cabling is something of a gold rush. Workers, mostly skewing young, spend days on end trekking through the American wilderness, schlepping fiber-optic cables from cube to cube and collecting payment once their lines are complete. The more routes you do, the higher-valued new routes become. The best cablers can make thousands in a weekend. It’s all kept track of and administered by a personal data device and GPS, called a “medallion.”

Ray’s out of his element. He’s uncomfortable with technology as it is, but to make matters worse, he’s got someone else’s medallion, with someone else’s account, nickname, and files. Right away, he’s getting huge paydays, the type that normal cablers work years to get, and he unwittingly attracts the ire of many of his coworkers.

Ray doesn’t look the cabling type, either. He’s overweight and balding, and he hikes in button-up shirts and a gold chain. As such, Imperial boasts big “caring but conservative uncle at Thanksgiving” vibes with the younger, hipper cablers, and his mostly quiet, fish-out-of-water performance at times reminded me of how James Gandolfini or Stephen Graham could be physically imposing yet unassuming, even charming and fatherly.

One of the only cablers Ray connects with is Anna (Madeline Wise), a white-haired young woman who spends her free time writing about the inequalities levied on the exploited, precariously employed cablers. She can also read Ray like a book. “You have kind of like a ’70s mobster vibe going on,” she tells him.

It’s not just Ray’s look — with the sick brother at home; Ray’s shady past; and the old, gnarled enforcer taking 30 percent off the top of Ray’s pay, Lapsis is rife with mobster movie BINGO boxes, but it smartly feeds them all into a larger narrative about the gig economy and how technology and income inequality go hand in hand. Lapsis plugs each trope into the framework like fiber-optic cables into the creepy chrome cubes. Hutton, the writer-director, has a career in documentary filmmaking, which helps the film’s social realist instincts rise to the fore.

Nightstream Film Festival 2020: LAPSIS: Takes A Hammer To Our Broken World
source: Nightstream Film Festival

The film’s world, as well-developed as it is, invites plenty of questions, too, as the best sci-fi films do. How does cabling work in the wintertime, or is it a seasonal occupation? How do they prevent animals from disturbing the cables or rodents from chewing through them? And those chrome cubes in the woods definitely give you cancer, right?

The film also looks gorgeous, juxtaposing the cold corporate rumblings with stunning cinematography. Ray lives in Pennsylvania, and he and Anna do most of their cabling in Allegheny National Forest. So while in the city, there’s low-tech grunge similar to Looper’s urban sprawl, in Allegheny, we’re served vibrant colors and lush settings that make the most of Mike Gomes’ crisp digital photography.

Our Broken Economy

The world of Lapsis is as well-defined and granular as that of a Black Mirror episode. Cablers stash their equipment at Airbnb-style community storage spaces. Roving bands of highwaymen children steal cablers’ gear. And the cable companies deploy these adorable little froglike robots to march alongside the workers.

Those frog-bots are secretly sinister. Each one is a motivator, taking no breaks and moving clumsily but reliably at several miles an hour. If they lap you, they take over your route. No payday.

They’re also the only stable cable-laying employees the companies have. The rest of the cabler workforce does temporary or seasonal work, cabling until they get injured or nab the paydays they’re after. Anna, for instance, got to the point where she only has to cable six months out of the year. Not everyone is so lucky; we see one cabler moving around the campsite on crutches, and many more risk their jobs to disable their cable bots, ensuring they reach the ends of their routes without being lapped or overworked.

At the end of the day, it’s the same as with every “independent contractor.” Getting one good contract isn’t “making it.” With cabling, you have to fight for your best paydays, competing against the bots and also your fellow cablers, the company pitting employees against one another.

This cabling gold rush is a great synecdoche for the gig economy as a whole — Ray, like everyone else out there in the woods, doesn’t get health insurance, is overworked, and much like at Amazon “Fulfillment Centers,” he can only rest when the system tells him he can rest; otherwise, his medallion beeps mercilessly at him.

The company is basically trapping its overworked employees in situations where they have to push through injuries, come to resent their fellow cablers, and sometimes destroy company property to finish their contracts and come out on top. Lapsis would make a great double bill with Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You.

The Real Villain Is The Corporation

With its ambition, inventive world-building, and low-tech approach, Lapsis kept reminding me of Creative Control, a similarly low-budget sci-fi film from 2015. But Creative Control is set among ad exec Brooklynites as they invent new augmented reality technology, the same perspective we get with most of these “Silicon Valley ideas run amok” stories. In Lapsis, instead of lionizing the dreamers and programmers who prosper most, those figures are rarely seen besides on Ray’s tablet screen, spewing bullshit in PSAs about how much they value their workers.

This isn’t just random socialist prattling — the incendiary anti-capitalism and critique of the gig economy are at the core of Lapsis, and these conversations are ones the film genuinely wants you to have.

Anna’s the mouthpiece for this revolutionary attitude, telling Ray that though there are a handful of different cable companies, they’re all owned by the same parent company, resulting in a monopoly over the industry. She pushes Ray to consider the bigger picture.

Nightstream Film Festival 2020: LAPSIS: Takes A Hammer To Our Broken World
source: Nightstream Film Festival

The cabler system shares frightening capitalistic similarities to tech robber barons within our gig economy. Workers in Lapsis have to buy their own gear, just as ride-share and delivery drivers need to buy their own cars and gas. Cabling forces the workers to sleep in campsites along the trails, much like how Uber drivers, with no other way to keep their working hours, often sleep in their cars.

Cabler medallions store “points,” too, which workers accumulate alongside their payments. They can make gear purchases at campsites with the points, obfuscating the company’s parasitic relationship with its employees by gamifying their labor.

There’s an admirable dominating theory at work in the film, to take our own broken economic system and either supplant it with something better or burn it down trying. Remember: Lapsis rhymes with “praxis.”


Lapsis is releasing at the perfect time — as a pandemic led to record layoffs across the country and the world, many workers are realizing the precarity of their employment and how little the ruling class cares about them. It’s easy to see how hiking through Allegheny National Forest in the summertime would seem like a dream come true, an escape from the daily grind of factory work, train commutes, and desk jobs.

The gig economy is nothing new — it’s been here for centuries. But luckily for Lapsis and unluckily for the rest of us, the exploitation of gig workers is a hot news item right now. That’s not just because of the pandemic when many ride-share drivers have lost considerable income and Amazon workers are busier, more vulnerable, and more stressed than ever. Referendums like California’s Prop. 22 seek to rob workers of benefits and allow companies like Uber and DoorDash to continue raking in money at their expense.

Lapsis is topical, revolutionary, and maddening. It encourages viewers to think critically about the economic systems that govern their lives. And it should, as it’s targeting a broken system that profits on the backs of the powerless.

Commanded by nuanced performances and smartly written by Hutton, Lapsis is a tremendous, radicalizing sci-fi project that not only feeds you anger but offers solutions to its existential crises deep in the American wilderness. Lapsis calls attention to our exploitative economy but also has the wherewithal to provide us with a roadmap, to tell us where to go from here.

Are you excited to see Lapsis? Or, if you’ve seen it, what are your thoughts on it? Sound off in the comments, and let us know.

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