Director: Alex Rivera
Screenwriters: Alex Rivera, David Riker
Producers: Anthony Bregman
Cast: Luis Fernando Pena, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vegas
SONY HD Cam
U.S.A./Mexico, 2008, 90 min.
*Gorgeous, intelligent, and intensely imaginative, Alex Rivera’s stunning first feature, Sleep Dealer, is set in a near future marked by airtight international borders, militarized corporate warriors, and an underground class of node workers who plug their nervous systems into a global computer network that commodifies memory.
Memo Cruz is a young campesino who lives with his family in a town fighting for its life, the small, dusty farm village of Santa Ana del Rio, Oaxaca. A private company has hijacked control of the area’s water supply and is selling it back to the village at outrageous prices, provoking the mobilization of aqua-terrorist cells. But Memo couldn’t care less about Santa Ana. He loves technology and dreams of leaving his small pueblo to find work in the hi-tech factories of the big cities in the north. He dreams of becoming a node worker and learns how to build his own transmitter, which he uses to hack into the lives of others and live vicariously. One night, he stumbles across a transmission destined to pave the way to the city of the future, but in a way Memo could never have expected.
Burning with visual energy and originality, Sleep Dealer is a fascinating and prescient work of science fiction that is as politically engaged as enjoyable to watch.
*Summary by Shari Frilot, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
Sleep Dealer is a very creative and strange mix between a Mexican home drama and an American techno thriller. The director, Alex Rivera, goes for broke in this story, trying to create an sfx-heavy, futuristic drama, but the budget isn’t quite high enough to support his vision. The acting is also on level with the low budget. The ideas in Sleep Dealer are so fascinating, that it is possible to look past the video game-style fx and the acting.
It is a believable future that Rivera portrays; no flying cars and perfect utopia, but an ever-widening gap between the prosperous and the poor with imperfect new technology. I liked how the technology presented a new spin on immigration. The US has closed its borders, but new technologies allow foreigners to control robotic machines in America. As one character puts it, “The US finally got what it wanted; all the hard work of immigrants without the immigrants.” This is not an unbelievable idea. One can see the benefits of this kind of technology and political agenda, and easily imagine countries in the future acting in such a way. I also liked how the director portrayed the role of artists in this future. A writer, in this future, uses memories to create her stories. She records her memories and sells them to interested parties, and this is considered the next stage of authorship. Memory purchase in place of plot. It is also interesting to see how the combination of physical nodes and memories allow sex to attain a new intimacy. It is nice to see that there are some aspects to this future that drive humanity closer together rather than split us apart.
I wish the acting had been better. The lead actor, Luis Fernando Pena, who plays ‘Memo’, does a good job with the role, but nothing fantastic. This is another case at Sundance 2008 of a lead actor being outshone by his female costars. Leonor Varela as ‘Luz’ is wonderful. She is empathetic and an instinctual actor. My favorite moment was when Memo is laying in her lap with his eyes closed, telling Luz a story about his grandfather. At this point, we know Luz is using Memo for his memory stories, but at one point she gives a little silent laugh at one point during his story, but then quickly covers it up before Memo opens his eyes. This little moment lets us know that Luz actually feels for Memo too, without the need for obvious dialogue. The less said about the American character, ‘Rudy’, played by Jacob Vargas, the better. I am not sure whether it was his performance or the small amount of time spent with his character, but his performance fails. It is a shame, because the finale of the story hinges on us believing in Rudy’s treason-ish actions of terrorism. The political statement at the end is a bit rushed, and the special effects still feel like they belong in a video game, but I like the epic scope the director is shooting for. It is a shame that the acting and effects constantly pull one out of the story.
The camerawork is well-done, with an especially wonderful shot of Luz and Memo talking in a bar. The camera is focused on Memo, over the shoulder of Luz. But there is a mirror behind Memo so as they talk we can see the expressions of both actors’ faces. Sure, the shot may be a bit intrusive and ‘director-y’, but in a film that takes such chances with special effects and technology, it does not feel out of place. This is a film that needs a few more million dollars invested in the effects and actors to make it live up to the promise of the plot. This is pure imagination on the screen, but even that needs to be toned down a bit. When a drone is about ready to kill the grandfather in the film, instead of shooting bullets at the old man, the drone blows him up with a missile. Instead of tragic, the over-kill comes off as comic, an emotion that I can’t believe the director would want at that moment. Sometimes the push for creativeness can strike a false emotional note. Maybe others can stay in a story with obvious false special effects and bad acting, but I am not one of those people. The story is there, I wish Sleep Dealer could have been given the financial support this tale deserves.