Earlier this week, one of my radical writer friends alerted me to the existence of a little-known but award-winning Mexican sci-fi film called “Sleep Dealer”. So some of us went to see it this week — and I was blown away.
The story’s premise is simple. In the near future, the border between the US and Mexico is closed, fenced, and heavily armed. This doesn’t prevent US corporations from exploiting Mexican labor, however, as Mexico is now full of factories in which workers with cybernetic implants do “virtual labor” via a global network, connecting their minds to robots in faraway cities to do the same jobs in construction, nannying, orange picking, etc., that migrants and illegal immigrants used to do.
Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) is an idealistic young man who lives on a milpa with his tradition-loving father and family. The milpa is struggling, however, because a corporation has dammed up the river and now charges the local citizens for every gallon of water. Memo’s father, who once militantly resisted the dam and still hates it, settles now for trying to inculcate his values into his son. But Memo isn’t listening. He dreams instead of escaping his boring, simple life — so he hacks into the global network to hear of distant cities he will never be allowed to visit in person. Unfortunately, this earns him the attention of the US military, and they send armed drones to destroy his house and kill his father, whom they assume is an “aqua-terrorist”.
Memo is thus forced to travel to Tijuana to earn money for his family, where he moves into a slum and ekes out a living working in one of the factories. The locals have dubbed the factories “sleep dealers”, because the workers often grow so exhausted during their 12-hour shifts — using unsafe equipment that gradually blinds and occasionally fries them — that they collapse. Here, though, Memo meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a young woman trying to survive in the city too. Luz is a writer, and to earn money she sells her memories on the global net. Meanwhile both of them are being investigated by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), the Mexican-American soldier who cybernetically controlled the drones that killed Memo’s father. Rudy’s agenda is unclear as he first purchases Luz’s memories of Memo, then crosses the border into Mexico, looking for them.
This synopsis fails to capture just how powerful the film is, however. The messages about globalization and the exploitation of the poor are more subtly done than I’m describing here; that’s just the part that captured my attention the most. But it’s just done so beautifully. When Memo arrives in Tijuana, he needs to have cybernetic implants installed before he can work in the sleep dealers. So he seeks out a “coyotek” — the futuristic equivalent of today’s coyotes, who smuggle (and often prey on) would-be illegal immigrants. When Rudy crosses the border, he speaks with a robotic sentry being cyber-controlled by a customer service representative who speaks with a distinct Indian accent. Memo’s father is murdered on live TV, via a lurid “America’s Most Wanted”-like show (complete with John Walsh lookalike), the host gleefully glamorizes the military strike as “blowing the hell out of the bad guys!” At every level the American appropriation of Mexico’s resources, from water right down to the people’s thoughts, is shown as simply an extrapolation of what’s already happening today, carried to a logical — and chilling — conclusion.
But what makes this message sink in is that it’s so deftly delivered. Since it’s science fiction, special effects matter, and the ones here are mostly CGI. Obviously low-budget, but still well-done. I barely noticed the CGI, though, because the actors are so fantastic — especially Peña, who’s a newcomer to US film (but a veteran in Mexico), and Varela, who’s had a number of parts in US sci-fi TV and film (Blade II, Stargate: Atlantis, Jeremiah). The cinematography is subtly effective — for example, though natural lighting is used in most scenes, the factory scenes are eerily lit with fluorescents and washed-out colors to emphasize the dehumanization of the workers. The movements of the workers as they go about their virtual labor evoke an “exotic” dance, implying a unity between workers in Mexico and those in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the “Third World”. The plot moves slowly and delicately when dealing with its weightiest messages, such as the parallelism between Memo (a Mexican yearning to see the US) and Rudy (a Mexican-American who goes back to Mexico). The bulk of the plot is given over to the relationship between Memo and Luz, as she struggles ethically with her need to exploit him for her own survival, even as she grows to love him. I have to admit I found her story more compelling than that of Memo, the doe-eyed idealist, though it’s Memo who (fortunately) grows up over the course of the story.
All of this is especially impressive given that it defies the standard message of science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction (SF). The most popular fantasy novels are those in which a deposed king is rescued or hidden, and the heroes fight to defeat the evil usurper and put the king back on his throne. The most lauded science fiction stories (and TV shows, such as “Star Trek” and “Stargate”) are written from the perspective of the colonizer who lands on an alien world and masters or helps the natives, rather than the perspective of the natives — who may not need mastering, or want help. Truly progressive speculative fiction, in which these old paradigms are challenged and new ones postulated, is comparatively rare (and becoming more so). So I can’t help hoping that more sci fi like “Sleep Dealer” — emerging from a non-American perspective, capable of looking frankly at issues like racism and classism and imperialism — will eventually help to reboot the genre. This, IMO, is what speculative fiction should be.
So go see “Sleep Dealer”, and help make it a hit.