Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sleep Dealer: Grade A

Sleep Dealer ( 2008 )
Luis Fernando Peña, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas; Co-writer and Director Alex Rivera. (Mostly Spanish, subtitled).

This low-budget, sci-fi indie gets an A for its genre, but like nearly all sci-fi movies, it is more fascinated with its technology than with human drama, so allowances must be made.

In a near-future North America, Mexican laborers “telecommute” to the U.S. by plugging their nervous systems into computers so they can remotely operate robots across the border that pick fruit, perform welding and yard work. As the manager of a telecommuting center in Tijuana notes, it gives America its foreign labor without the foreigners. The main theme is technological imperialism and human exploitation, ostensibly under the guise of anti-terrorist vigilance.

Memo, a young Mexican in Oaxaca (Pena), built his own HAM radio and while surfing picks up a police channel. He overhears police chasing then killing some offender. In his own neighborhood, drone aircraft patrol the private dam that has blocked his village’s river and ruined his father’s small farm. The drones are operated remotely by pilots in San Diego. When the San Diego corporation detects that they have been overheard by a HAM operator, they order a strike, and Memo’s family home is blown up, his father killed. The incident is reported on TV and hailed as a victory in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

Memo leaves for Tijuana to earn money for his now destitute family. He finds work as a telecommuter, operating remote construction robots in California. He must have “nodes” installed on his body to interface to the computer, and an attractive young woman (Varela) installs them for him, and they develop a relationship. The details of how Memo plugs into the computer are visually fascinating, reminiscent of scenes from Brazil (1985) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as William Gibson’s classic novel, Neuromancer. We, and Memo, discover however that “jacking in” to the computer eventually destroys your nervous system and makes you blind, so the human exploitation embodied by the system is total.

The romantic story with the girl develops in an interesting way, and so does an unlikely relationship between Memo and the pilot who killed his father (Vargas). The ending is predictable and unimaginative, but plausible and Hollywood Happy.

It is an extremely well-made film, especially considering its budget; beautifully photographed, intellectually stimulating, and dramatically interesting. I especially appreciated creative camera work, shots using mirrors, and so on. The main disappointment is the lack of an overall message. The important political and economic themes of the movie are not dealt with. Those issues are raised, shown, but abandoned. Perhaps that is the film’s message: heartless capitalistic exploitation will continue and nothing can change it.

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