Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Review: Sleep Dealer

I know, I'm kind of late on this one, but I wanted to be sure to get to it eventually. For you, my beloved bloggies, here is the review that will appear on Thursday in print for the DVD release of Sleep Dealer.

Sleep Dealer examines the sci-fi future of undocumented workers

The geography presented in the canon of dystopian science fiction cinema leaves one wondering if places other than major U.S. cities even get to have a future, as Orwellian as it might be. Writer/director Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer is thus both good news and bad. Good news: Mexico has a future! Bad news: It sucks. It’s not that Rivera’s film is overtly pessimistic; it’s just realistic…which is enough to inspire pessimism in those who watch it.

Set in Mexico in that nondescript, time-honored sci-fi setting “the near future,” Sleep Dealer follows Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña), the son of a farmer who dreams of joining the technological rat race. Using farm parts to craft a ham radio on steroids, Memo hears talk of “nodes,” which are Matrix-like ports placed on the upper body. More on that later.

Unfortunately, the military has been charged with monitoring for “aqua terrorists,” people who are more than slightly pissed that big corporations have put up dams and are charging at gunpoint for water. When Memo accidentally hacks a military channel, they track down the signal and conclude he must be a water freedom-fighter, so they blow up his house and drop a missile on his dad.

To support his family, Memo then flees to Tijuana to find work and discovers the future of undocumented labor. The aforementioned nodes allow Mexican residents to connect to and control robots in America; so it’s all of the discounted labor, without any of the Joe Wilson–despised laborers. Of course, these robots run on energy pulled from the human workers, leaving them like walking zombies.

Upon arrival, Memo meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a writer who sells her memories using her nodes and who is willing to serve as Memo’s “coyotek,” which is someone who illegally installs the creepy ports. After she places the memory of Memo for sale, Luz is contacted by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), who just so happens to be the soldier who obliterated Memo’s papi and is determined to find neatly packaged, simplistic redemption.

The flaws in Sleep Dealer are to be expected for any ambitious indie sci-fi flick. Rivera’s expansive ideas and visuals thrash against the limits of the tiny budget. He also isn’t aided by his lead actor. To call Peña wooden is to over-praise his performance and under-value wood. Unlike Primer or Timecrimes, Rivera has a hard time embracing his limitations; his yearning for funding is palpable.

But don’t pity Rivera; it isn’t the film’s marginal acting and weak effects that draws the most attention. The screenplay’s sophistication, its soft-spoken social metaphor hammers the abuse of undocumented workers, explores the willingness of writers to sell off experiences and memories for profit and reminds viewers of that water is to become the oil of the next generation. Nimble plot structure only sporadically betrayed by convenience suggests that Rivera is a talent whose stock is rising. Ultimately, Sleep Dealer is an imperfect but inspired bit of imagination.

Grade – B-

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