There has been a wave of science fiction in 2009 that has offered entertaining escapism (Star Trek), disappointing CGI overload (Terminator: Salvation), and psychological drama (the upcoming Moon). More proof that science fiction is back in a big way is the foreign language indie Sleep Dealer, a clever but deeply flawed film that plays like Guillermo Del Toro's version of an unpublished Philip K. Dick short story. Sounds great, right? Of course, and there are definitely elements of Sleep Dealer that work, but the final product is ultimately a great
piece of evidence supporting the idea that directors need to consider
the limitations of their budget. Imagine a low-budget version of The Matrix. The ideas might be great, but the technical expertise and budget required to accurately present such a vision of the future would make for a lesser experience. You won't find a much bigger supporter of independent film than this critic, but there are inherent limitations of the craft that Sleep Dealer runs into like a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States.
I use that awkward analogy because it's one of the visions of the future in Sleep Dealer. The story starts with Memo Cruz (a far-too-dull Luis Fernando Pena), a worker in a poor village where a private, international company controls the water supply with brutal force. Trying to combat terrorism, the company closely monitors radio transmissions and even sends out drone planes to kill anyone who messes with their billion-dollar business. Memo intercepts a fighter radio transmission and is tracked down by the company. A "pilot" (weapons and planes are controlled from another location ... more on that later) played by Jacob Vargas destroys Memo's house and kills his father, sending the young man on a pilgrimage to find a better life.
Memo has nodes implanted in his body so he can work in director Alex Rivera's vision of the future. It's actually a pretty clever one (even if it’s overdone). Workers won't have to be on-site any more. Robots will handle hard labor and the workers will all be safely in a factory plugged into a complex machine with wires running into their bodies. Advantages include workers who can more easily handle difficult tasks – Memo works high on a skyscraper – and the fact that they are fed oxygen by the great machine and can literally be worked around the clock. The cultural commentary – immigrant workers who literally become a part of a great working machine that works them to death – is a little too on-the-nose but clever nonetheless.
You would think that the cultural commentary would be more than enough for a little movie like Sleep Dealer, but it's really only the beginning. Rivera also crafts on an awkward love story. Memo meets a gorgeous journalist (Leonor Varela) who traffics not in stories but memories. Using her nodes, she downloads memories that are then sold online for other people to experience. She "sells" her experiences with Memo even as she inexplicably falls for him. Not only are we using Mexican workers for their bodies but we're selling their stories to the highest bidder. It's not exactly subtle.
There are things to like about Sleep Dealer. Vargas and Varela aren't bad and I admire the ambition of the project but I kept having the same two thoughts while watching it. One, if it was a big-budget film with better special effects and a more intriguingly artistic vision of the future, then the heavy-handed themes would be derided and criticized. In other words, fans of the film are ignoring the fact that the script is far too obvious simply because it's an independent film and blatant symbolism and overdone metaphor are more forgiven when the budget gets low. Two, the low budget leads to some awkwardly conceived and downright awful special effects. Don't get me wrong. I love a low-budget, cheap special effects B-movie, but what works in the pursuit of cheap thrills in a low-budget horror movie doesn't work with politically-themed sci-fi. I’m glad to have science fiction back in the forefront in 2009 but that doesn’t mean they’re all going to work. Consider Sleep Dealer a near-miss.
Rating: TWO BONES