Traveling throughout Southeast Asia, my wife Amy and I have seen labor exploitation up close. On a recent outing in Cambodia, we paid about $10 to ride a bamboo train. When talking to some locals at the turnaround point of our journey, we learned that our driver, the person doing all the heavy lifting, would barely see a pittance of that fee. It’s a small example, but a crystal clear version of what we’ve suspected has gone on in numerous other places we’ve visited. A sci-fi film that I watched recently, writer/director Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, tackles the reality of labor exploitation on a grander scale and addresses other issues like immigration, war, and environmental degradation in the process.
In the distant future of Sleep Dealer, technology has “evolved” to such lengths that companies can now employ workers without actually having to worry about said employees aside from giving them money at the end of the pay period. This whole system is predicated on the development of nodes, electronic portals that users can attach to their body in order to directly connect to “the system”…think of directly plugging into the Internet. Users can also inhabit avatars and robots to perform labor across national borders and time zones. “Safely” at work in warehouses, they can work with little actual physical exhaustion until they collapse from lack of sleep, hence the warehouses’ nickname, Sleep Dealers.
Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), a young man from a small Mexican village, longs to escape what he feels are the confines of his community. He spends his nights tinkering away at a device that allows him to hack into the system. When his hobby brings tragedy to his family, he moves to Tijuana in order to help support them. Along the way, he befriends a writer, Luz (Leanor Varela), who sells her memories on True Node, a kind of virtual reality for individuals equipped with nodes. Luz helps Memo obtain black market nodes, which he then uses to gain employment at one of the Sleep Dealers. Memo is assigned to a construction robot in San Diego working on a sky scraper. As Memo becomes obsessed with his work to earn money for his family, he sees the toll that it takes on both himself and his coworkers. He also begins to see a dark, corrupting side to True Node. Through an unlikely relationship, he and Luz begin to fight against the system that enslaves and pacifies so many.
Sleep Dealer is a fine sci-fi film that is occasionally bogged down with some sub-par visuals, particularly in scenes when Memo and other users connect their nodes to the system or, eye-rollingly, each other. However, the images of node-addicts and the Sleep Dealer factories are moving. The film moves at a good pace, while the actors all give fine performances, especially when it would have been easy to ham it up. Unfortunately, one of the film’s more important themes, that of Memo’s family’s violation and the perpetrator’s search for redemption, feels tacked on.
The heart of the film is a critique of America’s immigration policy and its reliance on immigrant labor to meet its needs, many of which are fueled by over-consumption. As Memo’s supervisor tells him, “Sleep Dealers give the United States what it’s always wanted…all the work without the workers.” At the same time, the film provides a brief glimpse into the lives of these “migrant” workers. As Memo says, “What happened to the river was happening to me…. I work in a place I can never see.” In a subsequent scene, he sees a reflection of himself as the worker robot that he controls, a vision that helps him truly understand what he has become.
Sleep Dealer is also a reflection on the destruction of the environment and the subsequent death of communities that depend on those environments. The river about which Memo speaks above once fed his families farms, but has now been dammed up by an energy company. Here, the film is a prophetic reminder of both the water and energy issues that will most likely dominate our not-too-distant futures…even as they currently confront many communities around the world. Memo’s father, tied to the earth as he is, represents all that we stand to lose should we continue to live and consume as we do. He asks Memo early in the film, “Is our future a thing of the past?” While Memo doesn’t necessarily comprehend the question at first, his experiences birth in him a similar question. As he pursues his desires of plugging into the system, he is fast embracing “a future without a past.”
As I mentioned above, there is a tacked-on theme that deserves attention. Sleep Dealer addresses issues of violence and reconciliation. Memo’s family is a victim of drone warfare. Yet when the pilot Rodolpho (Jacob Vargas) experiences a glitch in the mission, it becomes a personal matter. He seeks out his victims in an attempt to help repair what he has undone. Rodolpho makes himself vulnerable to Memo in his quest for forgiveness and, in attempting to right his wrongs, realizes that he can never go back home. But of course neither can Memo. The two become faceless, nameless immigrants, now joined by a common cause, because they have both seen beyond the veils of national borders and digital worlds that stood between them and reality.
Sleep Dealer (90 mins.) is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexuality and is available on DVD.