Reviewed by Joshua Lew
These days, the science fiction genre film is bigger, badder, louder than ever before. With mind-numbing box office draws from the likes of Transformers 2: The Rise and Fall of Michael Bay to this year’s James Cameron now rules the world monetary triumph, Avatar – Not the last Airbender, it appears that the days of sci-fi films only being cult films are now just the past remembered. Yes, that means the science fiction studio film is as the kids say, choice, more mainstream than ever, a market that keeps growing, just as Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine so succinctly put in Inglorious Basterds, “and cousin, business is a boomin!”
But for every large sci-fi movie release, there are also many smaller, independent releases with constrained budgets and limited distribution (and don’t get me started on the limited release of foreign films and how most movie viewers don’t like to do any “reading” in their films). The biggest sci-fi movie hit to come out of Mexico was the 2007 time-travel thriller Timecrimes, directed by Nacho Vigalondo. While the film was shot well, I never understood all the accolades heaped upon it. Sure the ideas were interesting, but the execution was lacking. However if one were to ask me what was the best genre film to come out of Mexico in recent years, which small budgeted sci-fi movie I would like to champion, it would be this film, 2008’s Sleep Dealer.
The dialogue mainly in Spanish yet partially in English, this sci-fi film from Mexico is written and directed by first time feature film director, Alex Rivera. In the near future, the government and corporations have taken control of Earth’s scarcest resource, water. The only way to survive in this new world is to be connected to the Node Network, a network where jobs are outsourced to poorer nations, as workers are connected like marionettes to machines all across the world for labor. After the death of his father, a young Mexican farmer and self-taught computer hacker named Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) travels from his small town of Santa Ana Del Rio to Tijana looking for work to send money back to his family. There he encounters a young and beautiful writer named Luz (Leonor Varela) who helps him connect to the Node Network, but for her own ulterior reasons. As Memo’s body slowly begins to understand the debilitating after-effects from the overuse of the Node Network, the truth behind his father’s death and Luz’s interest come crashing together. In a world where human energy is a commodity, can anyone stay innocent?
Sleep Dealer is a very thoughtful and slowly paced sci-fi meditation that is more interested in the overall plot than with its special effects, with its concept rather than its conceits, much like 2004’s Primer. Those looking for action, their hero’s tough and strong, may find themselves disappointed, but those that want their sci-fi films to think, need look no further.
Director Alex Rivera has created a truly impressive and somber world, a world where the United States immigration problem is solved by endless fences around the Mexican border, a United States that still wants the immigrant workforce but not the workers, as a new type of immigration is born, immigration through technology. The film smells with a Philiip K. Dick like dystopic paranoia and breathes with Blade Runner aspirations- a fragrant dystopia where technology has outpaced the ability for humans to consume it, which is very similar to the themes explored in Gary Shteyngart latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story. So yeah, the near future in Sleep Dealer might very well be now.
The Node jobs surrounding the Node network are also very interesting, where workers are plugged in- suspended like marionettes as wires connect to them, flow from them – soulless. Sure it’s a bit of a heavy handed allegory (puppets = soulless), a little too on the nose, but I found the concept fascinating, a concept where the journey of Memo through the technology takes upon itself a tinge of sadness.
However, the aspect of the movie that I found most intriguing concerned Luz’s job as a writer. Here writing is a bit different, as writers connect to the node network and download their memories for all to see – for a price, for sale – a new breed of writer who sells memories as stories, or more like a futuristic version of blogging, where people watch as “readers.”
That isn’t to say there aren’t faults with the movie. The budget constraints of Sleep Dealer do hamper the action sometimes, as most of the technological advances look less than believable, drawing the viewer out of the story. The acting is also not particularly memorable although they are believable. Also the subplot surrounding Memo’s father’s death and a third characters redemption really slows down the plot and adds a storyline which feels incredibly ancillary, one that I wish was just resolved quicker and the story shifted back to Memo and Luz. Still, there is more than enough here to please the most jaded of sci-fi fandom.
I’ve always loved low-budget sci-fi films that focus more on the ideas and the story then on special effects, ones that push the boundaries of the medium, because what is sci-fi without the envelope pushing, the futuristic truth? So while Sleep Dealer may not be for everyone, those in a thoughtful meditative mood will be sure to find enough here to please them. Check it out now on DVD.