At the beginning of Sleep Dealer, Memo Cruz is a young man growing up in a remote Mexican village called Santa Ana. He spends his evenings wiring together his own radio antennae, while the rest of his family eats beans and corn grown on their little traditional farm. The village is “dry, dusty, and disconnected,” the restless Memo complains to his father—problems made worse by a huge dam blocking the local river, built so that villagers must pay an armed robotic sentry to fill their leather canteens with water.
It’s no surprise that Memo wants out. He sits in his shed hacking into phone calls to hear people talk about “nodes”—neural hookup jacks familiar from cyberpunk fiction—and the many jobs you can get once you have them. But soon the military detects his spying and takes him for an insurgent.
The next day, Memo and his brother are watching a live reality show about a rookie drone pilot, his face hidden behind a bug-eyed mask dripping with cables. “Hey, that looks like Santa Ana,” Memo’s brother says as they watch a robotic plane jet over a desert landscape. Five minutes later, their shed is destroyed and their father has been killed.
Sleep Dealer’s action spirals outward from this initial injustice, bringing Memo to the unfriendly border city of Tijuana, where he gets his arms stuck full of nodes in a scene memorable for its combination of tenderness and violence. Then he finds himself one of those jobs he’d wanted, in a factory where the conveyor belts move only information as workers like sinister mimes manipulate nonexistent objects, glowing blue cables protruding from their arms and backs.
The objects of their work do exist, of course, just in some other place: Los Angeles or New York or Mumbai, where the robots they control pound rivets on a skyscraper or feed children in a posh condominium. As one factory owner says, it’s “All the work, without the workers,” a chillingly believable extrapolation of what anti-immigrant hysteria could mean when combined with advanced telepresence technology.
This insight comes from writer and director Alex Rivera, who since 1995 has been making documentaries and art films about how immigrants use technology. His knowledge of his subject matter shows, in that most of Sleep Dealer’s fantastic elements emerge from his research about what’s going on today. The scenes of workers manipulating objects half a world away, for instance, are just a few steps forward from the conditions in many Chinese or Indonesian factories, where the products are made exclusively for export. Same goes for the water dispute that underlies Sleep Dealer’s plot: Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa have all seen water privatization deals that resulted in foreign ownership, high prices, and poor service.
This extrapolation of dramatic futures from a fine-grained understanding of contemporary problems and passions is something too often lacking from science-fiction filmmaking. There are important recent exceptions, including—to varying degrees—City of Men, Iron Man, and A Scanner Darkly. But Sleep Dealer’s Mexican perspective is still practically unheard of, and that’s a shame because it allows such fresh thinking on the central sf theme of technology.
For Memo and the people he loves, the problem is not that technology rebels or malfunctions, as in the Terminator movies or Stealth or the Battlestar Galactica franchise. Instead, the machines that defend the border wall and protect the dam are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. What Rivera brings to sf is the immigrant’s awareness that the drones and telepresence tech are there not to protect and empower them, but, essentially, to target and exploit them.
That’s not to say the film is anti-technology. Memo never stops being a hacker kid who basically thinks tech is cool. The nodes occasionally fulfill their promise of a deeper connection between humans, and the ending suggests that even the most noxious technology can be hijacked by ordinary people for their own purposes.
Rivera makes a couple mistakes you’d expect from a writer who’s sort of a tourist in sf: an irritating voice-over and occasionally heavy exposition. Yet his film stands as one of the best 2008 releases in the genre, and lays down some pavement on the emerging path toward a twenty-first century science fiction that’s more diverse, more skeptical about technology, and obsessively focused on the questions of connection and disconnection that information technology makes impossible to ignore.