The irony is that while it’s likely that Hollywood is turning out more
science fiction/genre material than ever before, almost all of it is
garbage. Hey, I liked Transformers just fine, but science fiction
should have something more than just robots in it. It should have
thoughts, ideas, things that make you sit up in your seat and get
excited for the future or sink down in your seat and fear it. Science
fiction isn’t an excuse to break the laws of physics while blowing
things up. And God knows it isn’t intended as a way of keeping Nic
Cage’s floundering career barely alive.

While Hollywood has been churning out more and more genre trash in the
last few decades, a quiet revolution may have started. The indie
science fiction movie has arrived; small films dealing with real
science fiction issues and stories, proving that you don’t need 150
million dollars to make a kick ass, intriguing movie. There’s a handful
of bona fide indie science fiction classics I can think of off the top
of my head: Primer, Shane Carruth’s dizzying time travel story; Moon,
Duncan Jones’ layered and mind blowing film about lunar mining (well,
it’s about a whole lot more than that, of course); Nacho Vigalondos’
pants-shatteringly brilliant Timecrimes, another time travel story
that’s just as tight as Primer, but way crazier. Add to that list one
more: Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera’s cyberpunk immigration story.

The hallmark of a good science fiction story to me is that it isn’t
about a powerful ship captain or a space cop or a person in a position
of authority or power. It’s about a regular person. For me nothing
exemplifies this like the works of Philip K Dick and William Gibson.
It’s no surprise that both of these authors feel like major influences
on Rivera; his movie opens in near future Mexico, where a local river
has been dammed up, destroying the agriculture of the surrounding area.
The water, a precious natural resource now, is the property of a giant
corporation. Meanwhile, local freedom fighters – water terrorists – are
trying to bring the water back to the people. To protect their water,
the corporation has hunter/killer planes, manned by pilots at home base
who are cybernetically jacked in, killing locals with impunity, and
televising it on a highly rated TV show. Even corporate security is
expected to turn a profit, I guess.

When Memo, an amatuer hacker and ham radio operator, accidentally
triggers the security systems of the water corporation his home is
blown up and his father is killed. Needing to make money for his
family, Memo heads to Tijuana to become a high tech illegal alien: he
will be jacked into a system that allows him (and other low paid,
almost slave workers like him) to remote control robots in richer
countries. Memo is tasked with operating a robot that’s building a
skyscraper in California. In this future illegal immigrants aren’t
crossing borders but servers, and they’re even more invisible than ever

The huge factory where Memo works is called a Sleep Dealer because the
long, physically and mentally taxing shifts often cause people to
collapse on the job. And sometimes feedback from the systems out and
out kills you. Many others slowly go blind because of the lenses used
to see through the robots’ eyes. It’s a 21st century sweat shop, a
Victorian workhouse nightmare with ethernet.

Memo meets a writer – who in this future downloads her memories of
events onto the internet and sells them, and sometimes takes special
commissions – and her documentation of his struggle gets the attention
of someone else, someone who may recognize Memo from the attack that
killed his father.

Rivera’s film is obviously made on the cheap – many of the CG effects
are low budget, and he’s working with a cast of actors who in some
cases probably aren’t actors. But he doesn’t let that stop his
ambition; the writer/director has conceived of a big world in which to
set his little, personal story and he does as much as he can to show
it. It’s thrilling to watch a filmmaker of limited finances
nevertheless step up to the plate; while many of his effects fall short
of photorealism, they get the job done. And since you’re watching Sleep
for the story, not for the action scenes, you’re more than happy
to accept them. Rivera refuses to be hemmed in by his budget, and you
simply must respect – and probably love – that.

And you probably have to love the movie. Thoughtful and intriguing,
Sleep Dealer feels like an adaptation of a classic cyberpunk story, and
I mean that in the best possible way. While the film is completely
cinematic it has the structure and adherence to ideas and characters
that you usually only find in print. It’s also incredibly relevant and
timely, showing a world where no amount of technological advancement
will get rid of the underclass; it just makes the underclass more
technologically advanced. Rivera’s future, where illegal immigrants
have back alley coyotes install shoddy connectors into their nervous
system so they can digitally sneak into our country, feels all too
plausible. While the details may not come to pass, the idea of high
tech illegal workers is probably grounded in the next wave of
outsourcing -when India is too expensive, why not get someone who will
work for even less? It’s the high tech face of the global race to the

I can’t recommend Sleep Dealer strongly enough to fans of science
fiction as well as people who are looking for interesting, unique
visions. This is Rivera’s first film (he’s been working to get it made
for ten years) and I hope he has more opportunities to continue
exploring the underclass of the future. I spoke to Rivera a couple of
weeks back and he told me that he’s not interested in making movies
about Tom Cruise using that magic wall in Minority Report, he’s
interested in making movies about the woman who empties the garbage
cans in Tom Cruise’s office in Minority Report.

8.5 out of 10