We’re exporting our jobs, why not our sci-fi films?
Directed by Alex Rivera
Cast: Luis Fernando Peña, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas
Thanks to the ever-increasing worldwide domination of the Hollywood product, we don’t see a lot of films coming out of Mexico these days. Science-fiction films even less so. You’d have to go back to ... I don’t know, Santo vs. the Martian Invasion in 1967 to find a notable piece of Mexican sci-fi. (Nacho Vigalondo’s excellent 2007 flick Timecrimes was Spanish.) That alone makes writer-director Alex Rivera’s debut feature Sleep Dealer something of a must-see. Despite its micro budget, this intriguing experiment in south-of-the-border cyberpunk hits some definite high notes.
Luis Fernando Peña (of the telenovela “Fuego en la Sangre”) stars as Memo, a brainy farmer’s son desperate to escape his backwater Oaxaca home. Speaking of water, in the near-future world in which Memo resides, that particular resource has become even more of a precious commodity. Rivers are almost all dammed up and under the strict, military-like control of private corporations. This makes it hard on poor, rural farmers, who now have to pay through the nose for every drop of agua. Seeking some way to expand his limited horizons, Memo spends his nights hacking into communications satellites using homemade computer equipment and listening in on conversations around the globe.
This high-tech hobby soon catches the attentions of the U.S. military, which mistakes Memo’s eavesdropping for terrorist activity. In a cruel twist of fate, Memo’s home is bombed and his father killed. Now the sole breadwinner for his clan, Memo pulls up stakes and moves to Tijuana to find work at a “sleep dealer.” Sleep dealers implant Matrix-like sockets called “nodes” throughout people’s bodies and then hire them out as virtual-reality wage slaves. Workers may be connected to robotic construction workers in Los Angeles, or motorized fruit pickers in the American South or even computerized drone aircraft like the one that bombed Memo’s home.
In this world, the border between the U.S. and Mexico has become more of a physical reality, but technology has found a way to supersede it. All our difficult or dangerous jobs are shipped, electronically, south of the border to high-tech sweatshops. Illegal immigration problem solved: All of the work, none of the workers. Even in the future, it seems, exploitation is the word of the day.
Struggling to find work in Tijuana, Memo crosses paths with Luz (Leonor Varela, Blade II), a reporter who “writes” human interest stories by selling her recorded memories to interested parties around the globe via node implants. In Memo, she senses a dramatic, possibly lucrative tale.
The film advances a number of very clever ideas about the not-so-distant future. While the concept of “jacking on” to a worldwide virtual-reality computer network is nothing new, Sleep Dealer gives it a grubby, workaday reality that Neal Stephenson’s landmark novel Snow Crash and its overly imaginative offspring have failed to capture. (Apologies to all of you who dream of soaring through the Metaverse on angel-winged avatars.) Future technology is great in theory, but all it’s likely to give us are more efficient ways to exploit people. Like Blade Runner on a 100-peso-a-day budget, Sleep Dealer feels uncomfortably prescient. A reality show that documents soldiers fighting the war on terrorism with remote-controlled aircraft is so believable FOX would snap up the pitch tomorrow.
True, the on-the-cheap digital effects in Sleep Dealer look like they were borrowed from a 1998 Sci Fi Channel movie. Still, they don’t detract too awful much from the overall atmosphere. The dreamy, color-saturated cinematography goes a long way toward covering up the seams. As a writer, Rivera is good at balancing his serious message with a dash of ironic humor. He also has a bit of a sentimental streak in him, which renders the film’s second-half love story and revenge plot rather too familiar and overly melodramatic.
There are glitches in Sleep Dealer (cheap effects, wobbly acting, an ending that’s far more emotionally rewarding than logically satisfying), but most of them are the charming flaws of a homegrown work of art. At the very least, this admirable allegory about globalization proves Alex Rivera is an ambitious young filmmaker, worthy of future scrutiny.
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