dir. Noah Hutton.
Stories centred on the anxiety of computer networks have been a part of the sci-fi landscape since the 1980s, with works like William Gibson’s cyberpunk-noir novel Neuromancer exploring the sinister side of a more globally connected world. As the internet became a tangible reality in the 90s techno-thrillers emerged as a cinematic staple with hits like Hackers (1995), The Net (1995) and The Matrix (1999). Now, with the web having permeated so many aspects of our lives, the tech part of these dystopian tales is often no longer the main concern, but rather the different troubling scenarios that can be enabled by advanced technology.
In the near future, with society’s ever-growing need for physical infrastructure to support computer networks, a system called “the quantum” has become the new standard, having now become a mandatory aspect of everyday life – at the start of the film protagonist Ray (Dean Imperial) gets a parking ticket because he is not able to get up-to-date information on his quantum-less computer. Despite its advanced nature, the quantum still requires a vast amount of physical cabling to connect large metal cubes situated in remote locations. A gig economy has sprung up to meet this need, and Ray – a middle-aged delivery driver struggling to support his chronically-ill brother – takes a job with cabling company CBLR. Given a previously-used staff ID with the username “Lapsis Beeftech” – a name his new colleagues seem to recognise, but are reluctant to discuss – Ray strives to succeed at his new employment, competing with automated cabling machines, trying to win the trust of his co-workers and maybe figure out the truth about the real Lapsis Beeftech.
Despite being set mainly in woodland sci-fi imagery abounds, the hulking cubes in contrast to the natural surroundings, having a sinister, monolith quality. The cabling robots are small, slow, and seemingly innocuous (though you should obviously never trust a machine that an overly-chirpy corporate video has told you is “your friend”), serving as an ever-present reminder that the company would replace all their employees immediately, if only they could programme the ‘bots to navigate fallen logs. They also function as spies for CBLR – sampling DNA left on traps that the workers set – and despite the remote location there is ever-present surveillance: everyone is GPS tracked and drones are constantly circling just out of sight, ready to drop fresh cable as soon as each reel is finished.
Director Hutton employs several satirical near-future tropes: the dominance of new technology by unfeeling corporations hiding behind faux-friendly branding; the lack of social safety nets forcing people into exploitative work. By locating the narrative amongst the CBLR workers the film also explores the way in which advancements often fail to benefit the general population: the quantum network seems to be used primarily for the financial markets, whilst the cablers are stuck performing Victorian-style piecework, operating as solo agents and competing for the more lucrative routes.
The satire perhaps loses some effectiveness simply because the conditions in the real-world are substantially worse than those endured by Ray and his fellows. The countryside they lay cable in looks fairly idyllic, with tidy campsites, functioning equipment and at least some chance of decent pay. The worst element appears to be the strictly controlled break schedule – something that any viewer who’s worked in the service industry can identify with. And despite their somewhat ominous presence and sprawling cables causing a major trip hazard the quantum cubes seem positively benign, particularly when compared to the Bitcoin-mining server farms burning through energy at an exponential rate.
Instead, Lapsis is strongest in its moments of character-based drama. Roy is a likeable, laid-back, affable and engaging. Although given opportunities to use others for his own gain he resists the temptation and ultimately decides to act for the greater good. There is excellent platonic chemistry between him and experienced cabler Anna (Madeline Wise), the pair striking up a genuine friendship, and the film ultimately offers an optimistic vision – that strength can be found in collective action and the bonds of family, whether the one you’re born into or one you find along a cabling route.