This clever sci-fi story drones on in a good way
In "Sleep Dealer," people can upload their memories and sell them on a website. Mexican day laborers work in California at night - from Tijuana. And a popular TV show called "Drones!" features military aircraft annihilating any perceived threat to US national security. The movie's sense of science fiction dovetails with its sense of satire and paranoia. Directed, edited, and co-written by first-timer Alex Rivera, "Sleep Dealer" imagines a world of vanished privacy and virtual everything. The mood is lonely, the survival climate high risk.
The film begins in a parched town in Oaxaca, where a company charges an arm-and-a-leg for water and a young man named Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando-Peña) has built himself a spy satellite. The military picks up on it and responds, sending a remote-controlled jet to his village. It destroys the satellite and kills Memo's father, in a live episode of "Drones!," of course. To earn money for his family, Memo heads to Tijuana hoping to get migrant work at a factory where all the labor - orange-picking, construction - is done virtually. (Drones of another sort.)
Laborers have nodes installed in their arms and backs for jacks that can get them high or lucratively employed at one of these factories, called Sleep Dealers. NAFTA, what hath you wrought? Memo gets a node job, finds virtual work on a high-rise, and starts sending money to his family. His surgeon is a nice aspiring writer named Luz (Leonor Varela). She also has nodes - and an idea. Why not upload her memories of Memo and sell their love story? Meanwhile, this poor guy is being exploited at both ends.
"Writing" here is really just committing a form of video blog, which is really just keeping alive ancient ideas of storytelling as oral tradition. But for Luz, the stories are a way to get paid. That need for money drives both the indigent and the comfortable (Luz, with her handsome apartment and state-of-the-art computing system appears to be doing better than everybody). When Memo jacks in for the first time he says he feels his nervous system connect to another system: "the global economy."
Rivera has made a film so thoroughly committed to mood and ideas that its shortcomings feel minor. The performances are modest (Jacob Vargas is pretty good as an American soldier who comes to Tijuana), and the effects aren't always convincing. Most of the budget looks like it went into the animated replicas of the virtual work-world, which is a shame since they look like they've been borrowed from someone's Wii.
The film harbors a kind of contempt for oppressive government policy and mourns the corrosive consequences of capitalism in a way that aligns with the worlds of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. This is to say Rivera has vision. The combination of rusty amateurism, future technology, and clear-and-present politics creates a trippy time-space kick: This dusty little movie feels like yesterday, today, and tomorrow.