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Sleep Dealer Review

By Joe Lozito

Nothing but Net


The term "sci-fi" carries a certain stigma with it. People immediately think of spaceships, unitards and goofy, prosthetic aliens. And yes, there's some of that out there. But more often than not, science fiction stories take the everyday and tweak it only slightly – only enough to skew our vision of the ordinary. And big budgets aren't mandatory either ("The Day the Earth Stood Still" anyone?). Often the best sci-fi films are low budget, under-the-radar entries like "Gattaca" and "Primer". Of course, this isn't always the case (see last year's awful "Timecrimes" for a counter-example). "Sleep Dealer", a modest film out of Mexico by first-timer writer-director Alex Rivera, shows promise. But ultimately its story doesn't live up to its impressive vision.

"Sleep Dealer" takes place in a (all-too-believable) near future where Mexico has been walled off from the United States. Hired hands no longer need to physically cross the border to the U.S., they are able to "jack in" to a network of machines via "nodes" on their arms and neck (like tiny versions of the ones Neo and Trinity had in "The Matrix"). Workers plug in and go through the motions in sterile factories while the robotic arms they control are many thousands of miles away. It's the ultimate in off-shoring. And like much of Mr. Rivera's script (co-written with David Riker), it's an incisive bit of sci-fi hokum. In Mr. Rivera's future, migrant workers come from their small, dusty, "disconnected" villages and descend on Tijuana ("City of the Future") where they get their nodes cheaply (and illegally) in back alleys (they're called "node jobs"). Once jacked into the factory, workers frequently collapse from overwork, giving the factories the moniker "Sleep Dealers".

The film follows Memo (Luis Fernando Peña, who resembles a young Javier Bardem), a dreamer yearning to leave the little village of Santa Ana del Rio where he works on a milpa with his father. Memo isn't interested in hearing his father's tales of the old days, when they didn't need to pay for their water at electrified barricades. He just wants to go to the big city – the one he monitors via an audio hacking device that allows him to crawl frequencies (basically a sci-fi ham radio). One day, Memo's hacking equipment attracts the wrong kind of attention and tragedy strikes, forcing him to leave his village and go to Tijuana, following in the footsteps of so many others.

Mr. Rivera is clearly a man with a vision – and a wicked sense of humor: the film features a COPS-like show called DRONES "where hi-tech heroes blow the hell out of the bad guys", Tijuana is rife with strip clubs touting "Live Node Girls", and the elderly dance to Hip Hop which they call "old time music". But once Memo makes it to Tijuana, the film gets bogged down in a love story with Luz (the beautiful Leonor Varela, Marta from TV's "Arrested Development"). Luz is a writer which, in this film, entails uploading her memories to a YouTube-like website called TruNode. Once uploaded, the memories are sold to interested parties on the Net. It's an interesting concept, and one that might have been worth exploring in a different film. But up to that point, "Sleep Dealer" has set us up for a different kind of film, one about the exploitation of workers and the fading American Dream. In the end, Mr. Rivera may have tried to squeeze too many ideas into this one film. Still, it's good to know he has so many. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

What did you think?

Movie title Sleep Dealer
Release year 2009
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary Modest sci-fi entry out of Mexico – about the ultimate offshore labor force - shows impressive vision but lacks the story to keep it going.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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