Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sleep Dealer (2009)

Sam Peckinpah once remarked that he made Westerns because they were the best medium through which to comment on the state of the modern world. Watching his movies, it’s easy to see his point, but I would argue that science fiction is an even more effective genre for delivering social commentary. I think that Alex Rivera, whose excellent film Sleep Dealer follows a collection of marginalized Mexican workers who literally “jack in” to the world economy to remotely do the jobs Americans won’t, would probably agree with me. The film uses the speculative nature of its eerily familiar backdrop to make an expansive statement on the future of technology and the world economy. Working on a shoestring budget, Rivera has managed to create one of the most cutting, hypnotic, and worryingly plausible science fiction films I’ve seen in some time, and along with the recent Moon, Sleep Dealer bodes well for the future of the genre.

One of the first SF films that truly fits the bill of being “cyberpunk,” Sleep Dealer takes place in a dystopic near future that resembles something William Gibson might have dreamed up. In Rivera’s future world, first world nations like the U.S. have been completely walled off from Mexico, where the story takes place, and multinational corporations have taken a controlling interest in natural resources. The story follows Memo, a young man who lives with his family in a small Mexican village where the water supply is managed by one of these nameless companies. When his father is killed by fighter plane drones that protect the company’s interests, Memo is forced to become a new kind of itinerant worker. Distraught and vaguely desiring revenge, he heads for the border town of Tijuana, a technological dust heap where migrant workers get their bodies implanted with “nodes” that allow them to jack in to a worldwide network and perform blue collar jobs across the border. Soon, Memo is regularly working at a “sleep dealer”-- the slang term for the companies that set up the jobs-- and remotely building skyscrapers hundreds of miles away in San Diego.

The social implications of the story are patent, but Rivera is good about letting his character’s struggle speak for itself. The film never becomes too didactic, and what little reference it makes to the modern day is exceedingly clever. For example, when Memo’s sort-of girlfriend, Luz (a futuristic writer who makes her living selling virtual reality recreations of her memories on the internet), takes him to get some illegally implanted nodes, the guy who puts them in is called a “coyotech,” a shrewd allusion to the modern coyotes who lead immigrants across the border. Rivera uses small details like this one to help immerse the viewer in his future world. The film uses extensive narration from Memo, which does allow it to cut some corners, but overall Rivera is quite adept at using small bits of set design, editing, and clips from fake TV shows (Memo finds out about his father’s death by catching it on a reality TV show that follows the exploits of drone fighter pilots) to quickly establish the world he’s trying to create.

Sleep Dealer’s
special effects certainly aren’t going to win it any awards, but they are completely serviceable. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they so quickly draw the viewer into this world that you aren’t likely to notice the effects aren’t ILM-worthy. In many ways, the budgetary constraints here have shaped the movie in a positive way. Rivera’s future world is gritty, organic, and oddly familiar (Blade Runner comes to mid), which gives everything a touch of immediacy and surreality. Too many science fiction films give us an antiseptic and metallic world completely different from our own, but the world of Sleep Dealer is just different enough to sell the future premise, and just familiar enough to let the ideas really hit home. Rivera’s world is one augmented by technology but not completely transformed by it. Characters in Mexico still drive cars, farm vegetables, and work outside, but they do so amid the constant glow of flat screen TVs and holographic computer screens.

Sleep Dealer
has been criticized for being a small story about ordinary people in the service of a wider critique of political, social, and technological issues instead of vice versa. It's true that the story is relatively A-to-B, but never in a way that becomes boring or trite. Like the world it presents, this is a film that prizes experience and atmosphere above all else, and Rivera does such a great job of building his environment that it helps to carry the story along in its wake. As for the commentary, this is not a film that overtly preaches to its audience or falls into the realm of polemic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like the best science fiction, Sleep Dealer is more concerned with asking questions than it is with providing answers or making statements. Thankfully the questions it asks--about the moral implications of immigration policy, the possible effects of mass globalization, and the price a society pays for prizing technological “connectivity” at the expense of personal relationships-- are endlessly fascinating.

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