Last night at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn Sleep Dealer made its post-Sundance debut at the Imagine Science Film Festival, and you're now officially allowed to get excited for the film's 2009 wider release. Alex Rivera's first feature is a masterpiece — a modestly budgeted character piece that is the most exciting film in the genre released so far this year.Shown to a small group of Pratt students and one very old woman who couldn't read subtitles, it was an inauspicious beginning of one of the best small budget science fiction films we are likely to see in some time.
Our hero is Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a small-time hacker in futuristic Mexico who gets caught up in some very bad shit. Mexico is a waterless wasteland in writer-director's imagining, and Memo wants to go to Tijuana and become a "sleep dealer", an immigrant pulled in by nodes to larger system where the U.S. can enjoy "work without the workers," as the script artfully puts it. 21st century technology sucks the life force into the U.S., without much regard for the consequences.
When he gets to Tijuana, Memo meets the gorgeous Luz (Leonor Varela) on a bus. She tells him that she's a writer, and they part ways. Luz's writing consists of a voiceover of her own experience recorded in TruNode, a memory marketplace where she earns a living. While her other memories don't sell very well, her time with Memo finds a buyer, who asks her to go back to find him. Broke, she agrees, and turns Memo into one of them by installing electronic metal nodes into his wrists and neck. The third participant in this drama is the person buying Memo's memories, but that's for you to know when Sleep Dealer arrives in a theater near you. It's difficult for a film to grab you with the same futuristic trappings these days, but the closest Rivera's Spanish language fantasy ever gets to America is the robot Memo controls remotely on a construction site in San Diego. This gives the $2 million dolllar film a freshness that most more expensively budgeted movies lack.
A lower budget can often be reflected in the caliber of actor the film attracts, but there's no such problem here. While Memo isn't given much to do — he's mostly an observer until the end of the film — he's a nice proxy for the viewer, crossing the border, meeting the new. The rest of the performances are similar understated. The real star is Rivera' constantly shifting point of view: he's a talented cinematographer, and Sleep Dealer manages plenty of unforgettable images. Node junkies writhe in seedy bars, turret cannons swivel and recede, farmers watch high definition television with cornstalks in the background. This is a world we're not familiar with.
This kind of story does the opposite of most science fiction, taking up the viewpoint of an outsider innocent of advanced technology. Memo's first appearance in the film is in front of a stack of books that says Hackers for Beginners. It's a funny joke, but the critique rings true: too often writers are focused on the ways developing technologies affect the most wealthy, or the most powerful. Sleep Dealer's message for America is a knowing, if overstated one, and yet its hero Memo still yearns for the technology, and the power that goes with it. Without that, he's helpless.