Sleep Dealer finds its place in the sci-fi firmament somewhere between the recent filmic obsession with avatars (Surrogates, Gamer) and the politically-charged, low-fi grit of District 9. Not coincidentally, it’s exceedingly entertaining throughout.
Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) lives on a farm with his family in a small rural Mexican town in the not-too-distant future. He dreams of living in the big city (in this future, Tijuana) and crossing the massive wall separating the U.S. from Mexico virtually (instead of on foot, like the previous generation did) by working in a factory that exports its employees’ physical motions via the web. In the future, it seems, cheap labor will come from people who hook themselves up via cables in their limbs to a network that allows them to operate robots thousands of miles away. As one factory manager puts it, it’s the American dream. We get all the labor we want without any of the laborers. These factories are called ‘sleep dealers’ because after working long enough, the workers simply collapse.
This Matrix-like existence is a best-case scenario for Memo, who instead has to settle for working the land with his father, who must buy water at exorbitant rates from a global water consortium that has dammed the local river. Water, apparently, is so scarce that ‘aqua-terrorists’ have popped up, fighting to loosen the company’s grip. Memo, using a homemade radio receiver to intercept transmissions from the outside world, accidentally catches wind of a routine counter-terrorist operation. When the government traces the tap, they send a drone (operated, of course, by another of these remote users) to deal with what they assume is a terrorist threat. Memo and most of his family happen to be away when the attack comes, but his home is destroyed and his father is killed.
All of that happens in about the first 10 minutes or so, and it only gets more interesting from there. What director Alex Rivera goes on to achieve is the dystopian future jackpot of creating a socially relevant world tweaked just enough from our own to seem plausible while not over-explaining things in a way that alienates the audience. That leaves room for the parallels of this future with our present to speak for themselves, not to mention little things like character development.
The entire notion of desperate souls having surgery (and paying through the nose for it) just so they can hook themselves up to a computer and operate construction equipment, orange-picking robots, or taxi-driving androids half a world away seems a credible leap from 24-hour call centers in India. Immigration and exploitation issues are so obviously on display that Rivera doesn’t need to (and wisely chooses not to) comment on them overtly.
Political allegory aside, Rivera never forgets that he’s making a movie, not an op-ed. He finds time to squeeze in a compelling love story when Memo gets to the city and meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a woman who sells her memories online (again, not a huge leap from the way in which we already put our memories online in status updates, photos, or videos — and that without earning a dime) and has her own agenda to look out for. The script, co-written by Rivera and David Riker, moves briskly, giving us glimpses of the world it creates while maintaining a structure that pays off in the end.
Being a low-budget affair rarely hinders the film, although occasionally the special effects suffer. Smartly, the film does not rely on effects alone to dazzle, and what you’ll be left with after seeing Sleep Dealer is not a collection of cool scenes so much as a collection of compelling questions about where our world is headed.
Breathe, breathe in the air.