Pointing a camera at your roommates and having them improv scenes about failing relationships is a lot friendlier to a low budget than trying to paint a portrait of a dystopian hereafter, even with the decreased costs of CGI. So we have to give points to Alex Rivera’s "Sleep Dealer" before we even get into the film â€” it’s not only an ambitious sci-fi vision of the near future, it’s heavy with social commentary on the globalized economy and the promise of the internet versus the actuality of what it delivers. In the world of "Sleep Dealer," corporations have built dams so that they can control the water supplies in developing nations, forcing locals to purchase their liquid by the liter under the watchful eye of a camera/machine gun combo controlled by someone miles away, a situation that drives some of the angrier to "aqua terrorism." People access the net through "nodes," jacks implanted directly into their skin, which allows Ã¼berbloggers to upload their memories to a site for others to buy and would-be workers to take low-paying jobs in more glamorous locales without ever leaving, say, Tijuana. Factories, nicknamed "sleep dealers" by those exhausted from working at them, let employees link up and control robots in other parts of the world, serving in construction, in food service, in child care without ever sullying the nations of their employers with their presence.
Rivera and co-screenwriter David Riker have come up with an arresting vision, one that’s teeming with cruelty condoned for the sake of capitalism. The film’s weakness is the story that carries us through it, in which Memo (Luis Fernando PeÃ±a), a farmer’s son from a small town in Mexico, attracts the attention of corporate enforcers with his dabbles in hacking and gets his father executed. He heads to the city to find work with which to support his family, meeting aspiring writer Luz (Leonor Varela) on the way. Neither Memo nor Luz manages to become more than an inert narrative means of ushering us through to new parts of "Sleep Dealer"’s world, from the gleaming San Diego headquarters of the company that owns the water in Memo’s hometown to the back-alley businessmen â€” "coyoteks," the best bit of the film’s slang â€” that offer node jobs to those who can’t afford to see a doctor. The film gets bogged down in the pair’s watery romance, eventually bringing in another character to offer a half literal deus ex machina ending. It’s the film’s imagery that lingers, particularly that of the factory workers lurching like undead puppets through the motions of faraway work and sometimes getting fried by power surges. It’s a cutting answer to the utopian dream of web connectivity leaping boundaries â€” in "Sleep Dealer," most of those boundaries remain firmly in place, and connectivity only makes it easy for those in power to exploit those who aren’t.
"Sleep Dealer" currently has no U.S. distribution. It was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for outstanding film focusing on science or technology.
+ "Sleep Dealer" (Sundance)