Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sleep Dealer

Strange things happen with small films from small distributors. I intended to see this Friday night, but when I got to the ticket counter, was told the theater had gotten a bad print; the subtitles from reel 2 were duplicated on reel 4, which could make the movie rough going if you don't speak Spanish. Rough deal for the theater, I imagine: Not only does this kill Friday night, but who knows how many folks come back, even though they said a corrected print would be in Saturday morning? Heck, the loss of word-of-mouth must hurt.

I did come back Saturday afternoon, though, and quite enjoyed the film. It's the sort of thing I get really excited about seeing in Montreal every summer, an odd little sci-fi film from a relatively unexpected place, so getting to see it in a theater near home is a treat.

Sleep Dealer

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2009 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

Science fiction on film is tricky. The money to do spectacle generally comes with strings attached, but without it, a filmmaker runs the risk of having their world look unconvincing or settling for using their big ideas to tell a small story. Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer has managed to scrape together enough to have some scope even as it tells a ground-level story.

Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) starts out on his father's farm in Santa Ana del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico. It used to be impressive, but now it's marginal; an American company has dammed the nearby river and the Cruzes are forced to buy their water from the reservoir. When Memo's ham radio is mistaken for a terrorist spy, he heads north to Tijuana, intending to find work tele-operating robots in wealthier nations. Along the way, he meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a writer whose blog entries are commentary on her memories uploaded directly to the net. Not many people are buying, although her entries on Memo have attracted the attention of Rudolfoz "Rudy" Rodriguez (Jacob Vargas), who, ironically, teleoperates weaponry in Mexico from San Diego.

If there's a theme to the future of Sleep Dealer, it's that the more things change, the more they stay the same, at least for poor countries like Mexico; the indignities just creep in closer. America dams the rivers and then sells locals their own water back at inflated prices, and now they can get cheap Mexican labor and still have the border locked down tight (the film's title is the term for the warehouses along the border where low-paid workers manipulate robots around the world, despite the toll so much VR takes on their bodies and eyesight). If you thought Cops was exploitative, wait until you see Drones.

That's an earnedly cynical view of the future, and that's before getting to the Matrix-style nodes the characters have implanted in their bodies for interfacing with the net. As creepy as the pods in The Matrix were, there's something even more uncaring about the sleep factories, as the workers stand for hours on end, wearing oxygen masks to keep them alert and milky contact lenses. It's not an anti-technology movie, though - although there are slight hints of body horror as we're introduced to the nodes, it's mostly treated as an ethically neutral technology: A little unsettling at first, but fascinating and useful. Those spots of silver are our main reminder that we're in the future, but there's a lot of nice details that establish the period while also sneaking in the occasional bit of satire.

It's good that Rivera's setting gives the audience a fair amount of food for thought, because the story is kind of lightweight. The cast does well enough by the characters, never pulling the audience out of the movie. There are straightforward parallels in the guilt both Memo and Rudy feel over what happens in the first half of the movie as well as how they each work in the other's country without crossing the border. I do like how Rivera winds up kick-starting the story out of something that had been introduced as black comedy, and though the end is a bit contrived, it's enough fun that I wish there had been a little more room in the effects budget for it. The effects themselves are actually pretty decent - it's impressive what can be done on a small budget these days, so long as the director chooses his spots right, which Rivera, by and large, does.

Rivera's put together a nice science fiction story here, from a perspective not frequently seen in the genre, at least on film. Sleep Dealer is both good speculation and allegory, well worth seeking out for those interested in science fiction that does more than overpower them.

Also at HBS.

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