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SLEEP DEALER (2009) ****1/2 ain’t snooze-worthy. In fact, It’s great sci-fi! by COOP

Posted on September 28th, 2009
Posted on September 28th, 2009


Whew, back from a relaxing vacation to bring you an indie film that needs more exposure. 

Set in the  future where fears of terrorism have made travel across the  border between America and Mexico nearly impossible, native Mexicans find a new, high-tech method of illegal immigration.

Luis Fernando Pena plays Memo, a young man who reads Hacking for Beginners books and tinkers with his own surveillance equipment at his father’s struggling farm in Mexico.  The U.S. Government has dammed the river that used to bring plentiful water to the region.  Now Memo’s father must pay exorbitant amounts just for bucket-fulls.  Memo’s brother is addicted to a reality show called “Drones” which follows American drone pilots as they remotely bomb alleged terror targets.  When Memo accidentally tunes into an encrypted military frequency, a Mexican-American drone pilot named Rudy (Jacob Vargas) remotely destroys Memo’s home and father, all while Memo and his brother watch it on TV. 

Full of shame and desperation, Memo travels to Tijuana to find work.  There he meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a sort of web writer/documentary filmmaker who befriends Memo and sets him up with the “sleep dealers.”  These shady operations hook immigrant workers into a virtual reality system that transports their consciousness from their home country into labor robots around the world.  This advanced form of telecommuting allows Memo to send much-need cash home to his family.  However, as his relationship with Luz grows into a romance, he learns that she has a hidden agenda that could change everything. 

Although intimate and low-budget, Sleep Dealer has a high-concept idea begging for another film to explore more of its universe.  The idea of telecommuting your consciousness to a robot for labor or combat hasn’t been properly explored and the fact that it’s used here as an allegory for illegal immigration and human drama is a stroke of genius.  Using themes of hope and redemption, the film tells a relevant and meaningful class struggle tale without resorting to a heavy-handed liberal guilt trip. 

There are nice touches in here too.  “Sleep dealing,” like the modern day labor it parallels, is perilous and uncompromising.  A power surge to the unit can blind or lobotomize a worker and their are no benefits or compensation to their family if this occurs.  Another cool sci-fi touch involves Luz and her writing.  This new type of storytelling integrates her downloaded memories, edited and narrated all by her.  She then uploads the finished product to the net and tries to sell them via an iTunes-like service.  When she makes Memo her unwitting documentary subject, a mysterious benefactor becomes interested and hires her to make more films/stories about him and instructs her to probe Memo about his past.  Definitely an original concept that could easily become reality in the future.

Who patrols the borders in this world?  Sentry guns, ironically outsourced to workers hooked up to sleep dealers in India.  You can even transfer money over a pay videophone…  with a 40% service charge of course.  Even sex can be enhanced (in the film’s most bizarre scene, stolen I think from Demolition Man) by hooking up to virtual reality systems.  The mythology behind Sleep Dealer is so rich, I’m knocked out by how well it integrates into such a low-tech, third world setting. 

For those who love foreign indie drama and sci-fi, Sleep Dealer is a big indie award winner (including the Alfred P. Sloan Award at Sundance) and a must see.  While 95% is Spanish subtitled in English and was shot in Mexico, it’s actually not a foreign film.  The Sundance institution put up the money for it.  It’s Mexico outsourcing to the United States.  How’s that irony?  Director/co-writer Alex Rivera’s pulled off an amazing feat with this one.  I’m going to watch next career move with great interest. 

To learn more about the tech mentioned about, check out the fake website www.cybracero.com.  It gives you a good idea about the world that Sleep Dealer takes place in. 

Trailer below. Don’t let the action scenes fool you. It’s actually a quiet and deliberately-paced film…

-C

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