The absolute brilliance of quality science fiction is that it almost always uses the future – either a distant tomorrow or the one lurking right around the corner – to tell us something about who we are today. In the late 1960’s, Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK did this uniquely well. Several major motion pictures in the last few decades have done similarly; you can add Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN, and even Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 to that list. In the past few years, a few others have once again ignited that trend – Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR, Kristina Buozyte’s VANISHING WAVES, and Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL come to mind – and it looks like there will be more and more for inquiring minds in the decades ahead.
However, a film from 2008 completely slipped past me in this regards. As closely as I follow science fiction in particular, I was surprised that I’d never even heard of SLEEP DEALER. Still, given the film’s politics – or, at least, the particular leanings of the project’s writer/director – it probably didn’t get much coverage from media outlets I tend to frequent these days.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In the near future, major countries around the world have taken a definitive stand against terrorism, and they’ve completely secured their borders. In order for the United States to continue utilizing low-skilled labor for its various factories and construction projects, they’ve begun utilizing robots operated by drone-like technology, allowing those workers to continue to come from either Third World or other under-developed places. Behind the wall securing Mexico, Memo Cruz (played by Luis Fernando Pena) leaves a lifetime of family history in farming behind after his father is accidentally killed in a military strike; in the city, he’ll need to become wet-wired for service if he’s going to find a job and support his poor relatives back home in their hut.
I’m going to say this once, so pay attention all those who think I disagree with the politics of SLEEP DEALER: I do disagree with them. Wholeheartedly. And with great conviction. That said, I can still appreciate a good story as well as the next person, and, when it comes to weaving an incredibly profound drama, writer/director Alex Rivera has tapped a solid vein here and has let it spill out on the screen. He’s populated this flick with real people – folks who have to work in order to survive, and it’s been my experience that those people take said work very seriously – and that helped the narrative transcend most of his political posturing. (Do I know that Rivera’s anti-U.S.? Well, if his story is any indication, then I don’t need to ask him.)
The use of the War on Terror – presumably that’s what causes the U.S. to close its borders – in creating this world never reasonably rises above the level of a metaphor here. In fact, there’s no real war to speak on in the entire motion picture; what audiences are treated to are companies using war-mongering technology in order to protect their ‘national’ or ‘international’ property, so one might argue if Rivera’s true target isn’t big business as opposed to the Land of the Free. Because the metaphor stays largely in the background, it’s easy to push it aside and focus in on the fragile lives these flawed people lead. I’d encourage viewers to do the same – don’t see this as anything necessarily pro-Mexico versus anti-America – and you’ll probably enjoy the story as much as I did.
Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties if I failed to point out that DEALER has been the recipient of some pretty tremendous industry praise. The film won the Amnesty International Film Prize at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, as well as racking up wins for the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Also in 2008, DEALER won the Narcisse Award from the 2008 Neuchatel International Fantasy Film Festival. To top that off, it picked up a solid handful of other nominations from other reputable outlets, the most of which went toward Rivera’s resume as a storyteller. (I only ask those of you who follow the ‘biz’ keep in mind that many of those accolades come as a result of the politics of the story – it’s fairly anti-U.S. interests, as are most working in the film criticism community. Truth hurts, but there ya go.)
SLEEP DEALER  is produced by Likely Story and This Is That Productions. DVD distribution (stateside) was handled via Maya Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is an Española-spoken-language release with English subtitles available. (There is no English-dubbed track.) For those watching closely, though, you’ll see that there is a fair amount of English sprinkled throughout the picture. As for the technical specifications, the sights and sounds are very good; unless I miss my guess, there’s a fair amount of grain in some of the shots, and I can’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate choice on Rivera’s part, especially given the fact that much of this takes place in backwater Mexico and Tijuana. If it’s special features you’re interested in, then you have an audio commentary from Rivera to look forward to, along with a brief (12 min.) short about what efforts the director took in order to bring his cinematic vision to life.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. While one might easily conclude that director Alex Rivera clearly has some hang-ups regarding the United States’ foreign policy, I kinda/sorta did what I could to check the ‘conscientious objector’ politics at the door and tripped out on the sci-fi elements to this very human drama. Mind you: this isn’t, say, STAR TREK. Tonally, this is closer to DISTRICT 9 or VANISHING WAVES or even UPSTREAM COLOR. You’ve gotta hang around ‘til the end to appreciate the world that’s been fashioned here. So be warned: the greater masses-at-large may not see SLEEP DEALER the way I did, and that’s largely because they’ve grown used to too many alien spaceships, transforming robots, and virtual reality wire-fu to see a legitimate sci-fi film as a bona fide sci-fi film.