2008 San Francisco International Film Festival screening
The Hollywood cinema party line of the sci-fi genre generally occurs in either space or modern urban settings a la Los Angeles/Blade Runner or New York City/War of the Worlds and involve lasers, futuristic weapons and supersonic vehicles. Sleep Dealer shifts the setting to rural (and sometimes urban) México and adds socio-political, as well as sexual, elements that elevate the bare bones film into something more than its big budget brothers.
In this not-too-distant world, young hacker Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) taps into a global network and overhears transmissions about “Aqua Terrorism.” The tragic consequences of his eavesdropping force him to leave his tiny Oaxaca, Mexico village and head to Tijuana, to obtain a job for an unseen labor force that performs virtual work through nodes implanted in the body. In Tijuana, he meets Luz (Leonor Varela) a young woman posing as a writer but who secretly records Memo’s life to resale though the cyberworld. By revealing his thoughts his past eventually catches up with him.
First time director (and editor) Alex Rivera clearly has his mind on the big picture with the socio-political and economic atmosphere. His simple film makes big, topical statements about not only how important the future of water rights will become but the continuing exploitation associated with outsourcing. The Mexican “node workers” act as cheap labor in various parts of the U.S. but they don’t know exactly where they work. One node supervisor mentions, “We’re giving the Americans what they want, cheap labor without all the Mexicans.”
It’s easy to visualize images of Brainstorm, Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix where working and lower class become a plug and play (or plug and work) society. People plug in at the divey Tijuana bars to get their single or double shots, but not of whisky. Memo and Luz plug in to experience each others deepest thoughts during sex. The various aspects of where this world might actually be heading keeps the film going as straight as the border between the US and Mexico.
Although thoughtfully provocative and interesting, the film’s characters lack emotion that would surely add more depth to the film. In a film about underclass Orwellian society, it’s surprising Rivera fails to generate much passion in these underprivileged characters. With his roots in digital media, Rivera clearly has a visual eye as well as firm grasp on serious issues that many people can relate to. Now if he can only bring that human touch to his characters then we would truly have something to plug into.