Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer is one of the most grounded science fiction films of recent memory. The first time director has referred to his work as ”science fiction with many anchors in today’s reality.” He isn’t joking. In the future according to Sleep Dealer, Mexico is walled off, their water supply has become privatized, and day-laborers don’t even have to leave the country to take immigrant jobs.
The dispossesed and desperate can simply file into shabby factories outfitted with the latest ‘node’ tecnology–it hooks into nerve ports in the human body– and remotely control construction robots, nanny robots and even deadly war planes from one location. Rivera might be a fresh director but his film is anything but amateur. This is a visually imaginative, sumptous and engaging work made all the more effective by a reality that feels like it could be happening tomorrow.
Like Blade Runner and The Matrix before it, Sleep Dealer has its finger on the pulse of the cyber-punk genre. The virtual workforce of the film may plug in and engage their robo-units through a nueral networking, but the dangers of the job, the crowded, sub-standard working conditions and the desperation of the operators are as close to authentic as you can get. I was never in doubt that this world could come to pass, given the right circumstances. Rivera chose Super 16 to film the movie, and his decision to go that direction has provided the picture with a warm, dusty glow for the outdoor scenes in the Mexican desert and a blue-green tint for the factory interiors.
Disorienting dream sequences that suggest the mind’s eye of a plugged-in operator are well done despite the low budget effects. Rivera understands exactly how far his resources will take him, and he pushes them as far as they will go, relenting before they snap. Wisely, he chooses to let his story work the magic and places his competent cast up-front so that the well drawn characters take center stage.
The film follows a young Mexican man named Menno, whose technological obsessions with hacking and evesdropping via an old sattelite bring a world of hurt down upon his family farm. When his father is accidentally shot by a military pilot sent on an anti-terrorist bug hunt, Menno has to leave the farm and his family to find a means to provide. He heads for Tijuana and becomes a node worker, operating a robotic unit that climbs scaffolding and builds towering high-rises. He works hours beyond a normal schedule, growing so tired that he almost loses control of his unit. He sends money back to his mother, but is not intent on returning. Closer than ever to the outside world, he sees the plight of Mexico within a global context and feels disenfranchised.
The plot turns and becomes a taut thriller when Menno meets Luza on a bus headed to the Node factory. Luza is a young writer and she hides her professional occupation from him because she is interested in capturing his story. From here, Rivera crafts a film that could have just as easily been an indie about modern day Mexico without the robots and cyber-stuff. It works as human drama and the plot is complex without being convoluted. When the pilot who shot Menno’s dad returns to the story he has a purpose in the grander architecture.
And yet, science fiction is exactly the right direction for the film. Taking the class struggles present in powerful speculative fiction like The Time Machine and Metropolis and relating them to the modern day issues of immigration and day-labor, Rivera has a made a movie that is not only timely but, in it’s own way, cautionary. I complained about Surrogates this past weekend because it ultimately didn’t have the courage of its anti-tech convictions and became a superficial action movie. Sleep Dealer is more confident in the tale it wants to tell. Rivera doesn’t target technology as evil but points the finger at government structures and societies that would abuse technology to exploit groups deemed expendable.
The actors are very good at what they have been asked to do, and Luis Fernando Peña as Memmo internalizes his character instinctively and handles the scenes where he has linked into his robotic counterpart with a certain haunting grace, reacting as if the machine plugged into his brain were a natural extension of his body. If this weren’t enough, he also has significant chemistry with Leonor Varela as Luz. Once Rivera settles down in Tijuana for the central section of Sleep Dealer, Varela and Peña are carrying the movie. They are more than up to the task and with Rivera’s focused dialogue they elevate the film and its emotional impact.
Rivera is a skilled and thoughtful writer, but as a director he’s still growing. Sometimes Sleep Dealer feels too sluggish or clunky in its pace, and although there is a truly lush and sensual visual template, the film’s transitions are often weak. Rivera returns often to familiar compositions and sequences. At one point, I felt like I was seeing the same robo-construction scenes over and over. While these issues occasionally stifle the drama, they do not undercut or sink the film.
Rivera’s movie is a signficant achievement and a shining example of the cyberpunk genre. In fact, Sleep Dealer moves past cyberpunk and into a world of its own. A world so closely mirroring ours that it picks up all our concerns and carries them,amplifying them as it goes.