Film Review: Sleep Dealer

This inventive indie sci-fi movie has plenty of big ideas to make up for its small budget.

A heady combination of Philip K. Dick-style science fiction with an El Norte-like immigrant's tale, Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer marks a strong debut for a talented new filmmaker and features one of the richest sci-fi universes brought to film since the Matrix trilogy. Set in a near-future that could be two years—or two months—away, the film unfolds largely in Mexico, where private corporations control that nation's water supply. With their employment options literally drying up back home, many rural workers make their way to big cities like Tijuana, where they are fitted with "nodes" that allow them to plug their nervous systems directly into the World Wide Web.

Once connected to the Net, they are able to earn some much-needed dough by working in factories where they build skyscrapers, care for infants and tend to gardens…all without crossing the border. How, you ask? Well, their bodies remain in Mexico, but their consciousnesses are downloaded into millions of robots that now perform the majority of America's manual labor. As for those node-implanted workers who don't want to toil in futuristic sweatshops, they can scrape together a living by selling their memories on the Net—not in the form of written blog posts, but an actual recording of what they saw and heard, transferred directly from their brain onto the Web.

If I seem to be devoting a great deal of time to describing the setting of Sleep Dealer, that's because it's a pleasure (and, sadly, a rarity) to see a contemporary sci-fi film with such strong world-building. Would-be blockbusters like Aeon Flux and Babylon A.D. may feature futuristic production design, but the universe the characters inhabit makes little to no sense—it’s just another special effect in the filmmakers' arsenal. That's not the case in Sleep Dealer; Rivera has created a world that feels logical and lived-in and, more importantly, that can support numerous stories beyond the one told here. And that's a good thing, because the plot of Sleep Dealer is more or less boilerplate stuff, following a naive small-town youth (Luis Fernando Peña) as he comes to Tijuana to make his fortune via node work. En route to his new home, he befriends a beautiful "blogger" (Leonor Varela), who helps show him the ropes of life in the big city. While she likes the guy, she also has an ulterior motive for becoming his friend; someone on the Net is willing to shell out big money for all her memories of him. Who is this mysterious buyer and why is he so interested in a farmer's son from the boonies of Mexico?

While the actual plot mechanics of Sleep Dealer aren't particularly inventive, Rivera demonstrates a firm grasp of pace and tone, and the way his world operates offers surprises throughout. The film's low budget is distracting at times, most notably in a handful of scenes that employ some underwhelming CGI. Otherwise, though, the grungy, DIY-look of the sets and props only enhances the movie's sense of realism. After all, this isn't an idealized future a la Star Trek, it's a future with many of the same technologies—and social problems—that exist today. Forget about science fiction; one day, very soon, Sleep Dealer could be the stuff of science fact.