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Sleep Dealer

You know how there’s that endangered subtn_sleepdealergenre of “intelligent sci-fi”? Like the recent MOON and SUNSHINE and I guess people would say that movie PRIMER although I haven’t seen it. Coming out on DVD today is another small, low budget, independent sci-fi full of smart ideas about the modern world and what could happen with our technology. This one’s not an action movie at all though, it’s a small drama, and from a Mexican perspective. So if you never heard of it that’s why. Subtitles, and no exploding heads.

(There are robots and lasers, but not in a cool way. They’re just tools. Maybe about as cool as a city employee riding a Segway. Exactly that cool or less, no cooler.)

The story is about Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) who grew up in a tiny Mexican village screwed over by the building of a dam. He’s spent his whole life dreaming of getting away, but just like people in the not-future his way of getting away is just secluding himself in a little room and using technology to connect with the outside world. He builds a radio that he uses to tap different frequencies and listen to people’s conversations, but this gets him into trouble.

mp_sleepdealerI don’t really want to say too much because it’s a small, quiet story that unfolds at a laid back, natural pace. But basically this is a story about the way technology both brings people together and distances them. Memo leaves his family to become a migrant worker – not by leaving the country but by plugging into a factory and remotely controlling a robot on a construction site in California. Another important character (played by Jacob Vargas from DEATH RACE) is a Mexican-American soldier who pilots a US fighter drone attacking alleged terrorist targets in Latin America. There’s a wall between the US and Mexico now, and people don’t physically cross very often. They just do it electronically.

So it’s sort of about the internet, telecommuting and outsourcing. But in the face of all this technology Memo learns to appreciate good old fashioned face-to-face intimacy. You know, two people in the same place, enjoying each other’s company. (I’m not talking about fucking, they plug into each other when they do that, it’s kind of weird.)

There’s so much irony in here. Memo’s brother is obsessed with watching American HD channels, and his favorite show is about the drone fighters. Then one day he’s watching it when one of the drones attacks in his village. Mexicans sitting at home watching American shows about Americans sitting at home sending out machines to attack Mexicans. So far away, yet so close.

Memo can’t believe it when he’s spent his whole life trying to get away from the milpa and then he meets a girl from Tijuana who thinks it’s cool and envies how “real” that kind of work must feel. People never appreciate what they’ve got.

The woman’s name is Luz (played by the beautiful Leonor Varela) and she’s a “writer,” which in this world means she uploads her memories to a server and people can buy them from her, like it’s the iTunes store or something. It even asks her questions to help shape her memories. I would get pissed at TextEdit if it started doing that to me when I’m writing my reviews. “Would you like to give it a letter grade, or a star rating?” But I don’t doubt that computers will one day give you creativity tips.

The idea of Luz posting and selling “stories” about the people she meets seems invasive and weird, but in the movie it also brings together people that otherwise wouldn’t have met and creates an understanding. So it’s not a 100% anti-technology movie. Don’t get too excited, John Connor and Ted Kaczynski. And anyway what are you guys doing on the internet, you fuckin hypocrites. I can’t believe you just fuckin Googled yourself, Kaczynski. What a Unaloser.

The digital effects of the drones are pretty cheap looking, but it doesn’t matter. They’re good enough. Director Alex Rivera creates a believable future by mostly showing the present. Visually it’s pretty minimalistic, but he still manages to work in many subtle little details about the way things work. They keep running into automated voices informing them about tolls, taxes and surcharges. Instead of an American customs agent at the Mexican border there’s an eye-scanning machine. A real person’s voice comes out of a speaker to ask questions… with an Indian accent. Outsourced border patrol.

One little touch I love is when Memo is confiding to some homeless guys and one of them laughs that when he got divorced he decided to sell all his memories of his ex-wife. But nobody has ever bought them. You know, we all fantasize about the ol’ revenge memory-selling, but that’s the truth, nobody wants to pay for that shit. I guess in a way that adds further insult to his ex-wife, it proves that nobody cares.

While watching SLEEP DEALER I assumed it was a Mexican production, but it turns out Rivera made it through the Sundance institution. In a way the fact that a movie like this could be made is an example of the sort of globalizing that’s going on in the movie. I’m guessing Rivera is Mexican-American, going to Mexico, making a movie from a Mexican perspective, with American money, to show in America. Through the technology of movies people reach across the border to try to understand each other.

In my opinion this one is better and smarter sci-fi than TRANSFORMERS 2 or even MEN IN BLACK 2.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 2:05 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Sleep Dealer”

  1. Sounds good, will check it out if and when it ever comes to Irish shores.

  2. This sounds awesome. Oh Primer sucks.

  3. Smarter than Transformers 2? Are you sure you’re not indulging in a bit of hyberbole?

  4. Yeah, Primer is crappy. What’s the real name of this movie? Sleep Dealer, in english?

  5. What’s with the Primer hate? That’s a great little movie. Flawed in parts, sure, but it mostly works, it’s ambitious as hell, there are some really smart concepts in it, and it’s a strong, thought-provoking story. Sorry you guys don’t like movies.

    Vern, I look forward to seeing Sleep Dealer.

  6. Yeah, it’s weird. The version of PRIMER I saw was very good. Did you guys accidentally rent the Substandard Cut DVD? I heard that you should stay away from that one. It’s apparently not as good as the Theatrical Cut.

  7. Primer is ok, it’s interesting as it’s one of the few films to look at time travel in a very logical manner (or at least how we believe time travel would work) and how confusing that would get. I think my problem with it is that it’s so fucking complex (i’m sure most of you have seen that graph made to explain it, there’s about 10 different timelines to keep track of) that it over shadows any particularly deep debate about the topic of time travel, or involve us in any of the story emotionally.

    It’s like someone having to explain a joke to you, it doesn’t matter if you then ‘get’ the joke, it’s not going to make you laugh.

  8. Now I know what I’m watching this weekend, thanks Vern.

    Put me down as a member of team Primer-is-fucking-great. No other film makes you believe that with a blue shirt and a little luck you too could travel time in a U-Store. Suck it Dr. Who.

  9. Hey thanks for the review, Vern. Saw this trailer awhile back and was really jazzed to watch it, but it looks like it got released without me realizing or remembering. Now I’ll have to hunt it down — is it still in theaters, or did you see it on DVD already? There are apallingly few theaters in the DC area that show this kind of thing… I was lucky to find two that showed “Moon” even.

    Oh, and folks: Don’t let these haters tell you PRIMER isn’t great, because it is. Its kind of frustrating and hard to figure out, but worth it if you do. It doesn’t pander to you but it also isn’t pretentious or intentionally opaque — its just kind of complex and doesn’t dump the answers in your lap. However, its use of shakey-cam (justified, I think) may make you absolutely crazy, especially if your name is Vern, since it makes it hard to tell what’s going on just when you’re really trying to get enough information to piece it all together. Still worth it though, I think.

    ADVERTISEMENT: If you live in the DC area and want to start losing money in a quixotic quest to provide a venue for great indie and foreign films in the nation’s capital, please do it.

    love, Mr. Subtlety.

  10. I think SLEEP DEALER only played in one theater for one week in Seattle, but the DVD came out today (at least in the U.S.).

  11. Fuck ya’ll peasants. Primer was great. You know how I know with total certainty of its greatness? I didn’t even understand what they were talking about, you know, cause it was like, so effin smart and stuff. Man. When a movie is too smart for a walking cerebral erection like me, whew, might as well just pack up the negatives and launch this bitch into space, maybe aliens will find it and be equally confused.

    Actually I really liked Primer. Is that what I wrote above? Stupid pain pills…

  12. I liked PRIMER but I liked TIMECRIMES even more because it had a better plot, it was funnier, I cared about about the characters and I could actually understand what was going on. SLEEP DEALER looks cool though, I will check it out.

    No GAMER review yet? I hope there’s one on the way because I have a few things to say about that film and I don’t want to threadjack.

  13. Yeah I’d be interested to see a Gamer review, I found it really odd none of the geek sites seem to have bothered (AICN, CHUD etc). The trailer was suprisingly decent imo, i was never a massive fan of Crank and the concept is an old one just with the context of video games this time, but it looked like it could be entertaining .

    Oh and I agree about Timecrimes, great time travel flick.

    Thanks for bringing Sleep Dealer to my attention Vern, it sounds interesting and it really is a film I’d probably have never heard of if you hadn’t reviewed it, not sure I’ll be able to get hold of it but I’ll certainly try.

  14. I liked Gamer in a clobber-you-over-the-head kind of way. It’s nowhere near the level of insanity on a plot-level as the Crank movies, but the editing is still beyond spastic, so I can’t see Vern getting into it. The dude from Dexter does a pretty great pantomime of Sammy Davis Jr., if that sweetens the deal at all.

  15. I was thinking about going to see GAMER despite it coming from the Neveldine/Taylor corporation. I like those RUNNING MAN type of stories and the trailer wasn’t bad. But then I read Moriarty’s review:

    http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/2008-12-6-motion-captured/posts/the-motion-captured-review-gamer

    and it just seemed too plausible. What he describes really sounds like the movie those jokers would make. So I’m afraid you’re gonna have to wait for the DVD for me to review it. You know you can trust me on this though because I said the same thing about CRANK 2 and I’ll have a review of that up soon.

  16. I wouldn’t be surprised if the real life future turns out to be like this movie, the internet is definitely going places kid

  17. Thanks for the review, Vern. I’m a sucker for mature scifi and I had never heard of this film.

    As for the Primer debate, I thought it was a good film – Outstanding for that budget – but it lost it’s way in the end. It seemed to become confusing for the sake of being confusing, and that’s just not my cup of tea. For example I didn’t like it when Mulholland Drive took the same route after the brilliant first two acts.

  18. the indian accent part was my favourite “moment” in this film. especially as she’s reciting a bunch of xenophibic warnings about entering mexico to a guy who’s ethnically mexican

    i’m not sure if theres even a single white person in the movie, yet so many characters are officially morivated by defending “white” culture. lots of that kind of nasty irony going on.

    the political references make district 9 look subtle, but theres enough good stuff here to make it worth the watch.

    like district 9, the mere fact that its from outside the us makes it inherently refreshing

  19. also refreshing – a good sci fi film that AICN hasnt jizzed all over yet. i mean, i love those guys, but i wouldnt necessarily take them out clubbing, y’know?

  20. Didn’t Glasgow say, “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.”

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