Sleep Dealer

What’s it like to work with something real?
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Alex Rivera
Starring: 
Luis Fernando Peña, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas
The Setup: 
Young man gets a job as a new kind of migrant worker.
Discussion: 

I regularly check out the Pew Internet Life Project for new surveys. They are constantly polling the public and documenting the role of in the Internet and other technologies in people’s lives. They are the ones who documented that the average American now spends 7.4 hours per day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Anyway, they had an article about what we can expect regarding Internet usage in 2025, where they asked a bunch of experts about where they think the world will be in ten years. The article included this: “Frank Pasquale, a law professor at a large U.S. university, responded, “As Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer shows, the workplace plugged into the Internet of Things will be more productive and more prison-like (or, to be more accurate, more like an ‘ankle monitor’ of the mind that upgrades scanning not merely to location, but also to observable ‘outputs’ like typing and eye movements).” So obviously I had to see it right away! I always listen to futurists [except when they’re optimistic]. By the way, the main predictions in the article were 1) the “Internet of Things” will be inescapable by 2025 (that’s where your fridge and air conditioner and thermostat and hairbrush and socks and faucet are all connected to the Internet), and 2) “privacy,” as we currently understand it, will be a thing of the past. Anyway, so I was super-keen to see this film!

We open with our hero and narrator, Memo, hooked up to a bunch of wires that go directly into his nervous system, a la Johnny Mnemonic or The Matrix or eXistenZ. He says sometimes he hallucinates, and if you get a power surge, you can be killed. He recalls his past in Santa Ana, Oaxaca, Mexico, where he lived with his mom, dad and brother. He has a hut where he tries to tap into secure networks for fun, and we see a book of his, “Hacking for beginners.” His brother is hooked on watching “American HD,” especially a series called “Drones!” in which drones fly around killing “bad guys.” His Dad reminisces about how everything used to be better before they built a huge dam. They used to have water and be farmers, but now they have to go pay for small amounts of water at the dam, guarded by men with machine guns and automatic machine guns. Memo thinks his dad is stuck in the past for not embracing new technologies and wanting to continue farming.

So already we can tell that this movie is pretty low-budget, and also I like the way they’re combining very dusty, rural Mexican locations and characters with selected, smart futuristic technology. It’s very well integrated into a very present-day reality that adds a nice touch of realism.

So Memo and his brother are in town, watching “Drones!” on TV, where we meet ace pilot Rodolfo (Rudy) Ramirez, who takes down terrorists! They’ve detected an illegal signal, and “go live” as they dispatch a drone, piloted by Rudy. Memo and his brother soon realize… the drone is on its way to blow up HIS hut, because of his signal. They arrive back a minute too late, and his hut is blown up by drone. His father, bloody and injured, crawls out of the rubble, and the drone blows him apart with a missile! After a bit of mourning, Memo leaves for Tijuana, where he hopes to get a job to help support his family.

On the bus into the city, he meets the lovely Luz (Memo is not hard to look at, either), who has “nodes,” the body ports people use to connect their bodies to the internet. Memo asks her where he can get some. She wants to be a writer, but what she means by “writer” is that she plugs into a sort of super-Facebook where she uploads her memories as “short stories.” She puts up a story of meeting Memo on the bus, and is soon contacted by Rudy, who wants her to find out more about him, like where he came from.

She soon finds Memo again, and ends up installing his nodes herself. She tells him that when you connect to the Internet, “sometimes you control it, sometimes the machine controls you.” Luz and Memo develop a relationship. With his nodes, he can get a job in a factory, where there are hooked-in workers stretching into the distance, and says “finally I could connect to the global economy.” He gets a job, and when he connects into the machine (which is purposely designed to make its users look like marionettes) he sees that he is controlling a machine high up a skyscraper under construction… he thinks in Los Angeles. So you see, he is a new kind of migrant worker, only one who never actually sets foot into the United States.

SPOILERS > > >
He sends money to his brother via videophone… it’s a bit funny, as he inserts $270 (a motif of the movie is vending machine-type money-accepting machines everywhere) and after “taxes, surcharges and fees,” his brother receives $180. Rudy is still demanding more personal information from Luz, and she is falling for Memo, even as she is extracting and selling information from him. She’s amazed that Memo’s dad was a farmer, and says “what was it like to work with something so real?”

Memo isn’t loving being connected, saying “the more I’m connected, the harder it is to see,” and “what happened to the river was happening to me.” He sees a worker get injured and possibly killed from a power surge at work. Luz tells him that a friend invited her over and she sold the memory, and Memo says “She invited you into her home and you sold it?” So she doesn’t tell him she’s been recording him, and they have sex where they’re connected to each other, although it doesn’t look like much except a bunch of bright lights.

By now you’ll have noticed several images of the border wall with the United States. Eventually Memo tells Luz about his father. She promptly uploads it. Rudy buys it. Now we see Rudy, drone pilot, who is having seconds thoughts about his life work. “I killed a man,” he says, to which his mother replies “And we are so proud of you!” Rudy gets in a car and drives down to Tijuana to find Memo. Now if you don’t want to know the rest, skip past the spoilers.

Memo is let into Luz’s house while she’s gone, and he finds out that she’s posted his personal memories to the Internet. This leads to a confrontation, and he leaves her. Soon after, Memo goes to his regular restaurant haunt, where Rudy finds him. Rudy indicates that he is the one who shot Memo’s father, and Memo, terrified, runs. Eventually Rudy catches up to him, on a bus, and he says that he’s sorry and wants to help. He has a plan, and to execute it, he needs Luz’s help, so Memo contacts her again. We see Memo let Rudy and Luz into the remote-working factory, where Rudy taps in, virtually steals a drone… and uses it to blow up the dam that has been hoarding water from Memo’s community.

In an epilogue, we see that life is now good again in the community of Memo’s mother and brother. But now neither Rudy nor Memo can ever go home again, as they’re hunted criminals. Memo is happy with Luz… and that’s the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

So just as it’s looking like one of those sci-fi movies in which the main idea is the best thing about it, it comes up with that ending, which, while more than a little simplistic (life just returns to normal? Everything is fine? The corporations just give up and go away?) provides a nice, unexpected reversal and converging of storylines. Other than that, it has a lot of strength in the power of its central idea—that migrant workers can now work in the US, only without being allowed to enjoy any of the advantages of actually being in the country. Numerous shots of the tall border walls reinforce this idea continually, as well as the shoddiness and dangerous nature of Memo’s workplace. And these are the sought-after jobs that are enough to support a family back home.

This idea is also built out with several other, smaller futuristic ideas that also work well. I really liked the concept that people now upload their memories to a kind of future-Facebook, with the attendant lack of privacy that implies, as well as the psychological loss of the value of privacy. It seemed a realistic image of a world not too far away, in which people have grown up with no sense of what we used to consider privacy, and think “Why WOULDN’T I put my entire life up on the Internet?” I also thought it was extremely clever that people would buy memories as “stories,” which seems an extension of the way people are now considering their collection of selfies to constitute compelling narratives and life stories. And the idea, which seems to be exactly where we’re headed, of people incorporating Internet connections into their very bodies [explored in more depth in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ]. Not to mention the world being patrolled and policed by drones, and the kicker that this is broadcast worldwide as reality television. It’s a great irony that Memo’s brother is addicted to the very reality show on which he sees his own home being destroyed. There are also great touches like little money-accepting machines on everything from water to phone calls, and the vast expense of added fees on top of everything. So it’s extremely and a very thoughtful, realistic view of what the future might hold.

That said, there are certain aspects I wish the movie had the time—or budget—to explore, like the whole implications of having the Internet connecting directly into your central nervous system. There is a line that “sometimes it controls you,” but the implications are never explored. Along those lines, our view of “connected sex” is just a bunch of bright lights, but… hmmm, I’d like to know more about that. Or what happened to the one guy who got overloaded and whose body shut down. I often complain about sci-fi movies that have so many ideas that they don’t have enough time to explore, making them seem unfinished and not very carefully thought through, but this is an example of throwing out a bunch of ideas that are evocative and spur thought, so it all generally works, even if it would be nice to have more detail. This is a case where it’s nice to have too many interesting ideas, and too much to think about, than too few.

One can also admire how this was all achieved on what seems to be a microscopic budget, although the low budget is very apparent all the way through, and constantly distracts. On the disc is a short documentary that says Rivera got the idea from reading an article about the rise of telecommuting, and had an idea about how the new migrant workers could “work” in America without actually being there [a short of robots picking oranges hammers this home]. He made a short film and put it on the Internet, which attracted attention, and encouraged him to submit the script to the Sundance workshop, where they helped him find funding and build it into a feature. It’s a great for a low-budget feature, and one admires a film that is leading with its ideas and forcing you to focus on them, rather than its low resources or poor special effects, but again, those things are very apparent and keep nagging away at one’s ability to get fully engaged. Still, it seems that we can expect good things from Rivera in the future.

So there you go, a very smart social criticism sci-fi film with a lot of fascinating ideas that seem very relevant to the present day. Its general clunkiness and low-budget vibe keep it from being a total knockout, but if it’s good enough for today’s leading futurists, it’s good enough for you!

Should you watch it: 

Yes, if you like smart, social criticism sci-fi with a lot of brilliant ideas, and are willing to overlook a few shortcomings in execution.

Comments

The idea of telerobotics making migrant work even worse is the kind of social commentary that the District 9 guy imagines that he's making.

The "drone strikes as reality TV" is kind of a ripoff of "The Running Man", though.