Wednesday, March 24, 2010

REVIEW: Sleep Dealer

Sleep Dealer
Director:  Alex Rivera
Year 2008

Sleep Dealer is one of those films that over achieves in all aspects of its production despite its low budget and brings fresh and new ideas to a genre that seems to have done it all. Filmed in Mexico and set in the near-future, the film follows a young man named Memo, played by a sympathetic Luis Fernando Pena, who dreams to leave his humble surroundings marred in tradition and move to the big city which embraces the newest technologies through a global digital network that links minds all over the world. He spends most of his nights toiling in his tool shed, rigging up old radio sets in order to listen in on other people's conversations and at least get a glimpse of what it is like in the technologically advanced cities.

Memo, listening in on a life he wished he had. That listening (peeping) tom.

He hears talk of job opportunities and lavish lifestyles all brought about by something called "nodes". These electronic nodes are basically ports that are infused into your body, making it possible to connect into the global network. Almost all of "civilized" society has a node and makes their living hooked up to the network doing whatever task is assigned to them. The reality of this is far darker then first glossed over. These workers are doing all the remedial jobs and hard labor American's won't do and their doing it far off in another country in virtual factories. Far away from sympathetic humanitarian eyes, so they are forced to work full 12 hour shifts with no breaks and horrible working conditions. This concept is rather unique and harkens back to our very time where the United States exploits immigrants coming to our shores by using them for cheap labor. It's kind of scary that this could be a plausible solution to our immigration problems. Get the job done without having to house the workers while neglecting their well being because like that old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind". Could this really ever happen in reality? It's a disturbing thought.

The zombie-like look of the node workers.

Memo's life is a simple one, far from the virtual factories and corruption that slowly eats away at the exploited workers, yet he is surrounded by that very corruption in his small village. A dam was recently constructed by a corporation linked to the virtual labor factories and the new way of life and they are basically holding the people's water for ransom, charging exuberant fees in order for them to get a few pales of water to quench their dwindling crops. The dam also has an advanced security system, armed with gun turrets that only let you in if you show the green stuff. 

Be lucky you don't have to go through all of this to pay your water bill.

Memo helps out his family all that he can, but it never seems like they are getting anywhere. His father believes in tradition and that farming the land is still relevant in this day in age. He believes that he is doing the right thing and what is best for his family, but Memo doesn't understand it at all and even laughs at him when he talks so passionately about the land. The two are a great example of the generation gap that spread so many people apart since the advances of technology in our own world. This belief in that the old ways are not relevant anymore, drives Memo in the pursuit of wanting a better more tech filled existence. The underlying idea of him wanting to get a node and bettering himself through work in the big city greatly appeals to Memo, and he dreams of someday getting the surgery done and starting a new life.

Like Fievel in An American Tail, Memo's thinking, "Somewhere out there."

One of the brilliant displays of showing the generation gap, is done in one simple scene. There is a small party going on one night that Memo and his family attend and there are senior citizens bumping it to hip hop. All of the old heads are out on the dance floor with their hands up,  grinding on each other like some hood-rat you'd find downtown at some dingy club. The younger generation show their distaste, and one of the middle aged guys asks Memo if he likes the classics. It's a really hilarious scene and made me think about how my daughter will view music from this time period. This is just one example of the many creative touches the filmmakers put into the film to flush out the world and make it a logical progression from our current culture. 

Look at those old freaks getting it on on the dance floor!

The event that really sets this tale in motion occurs one night when Memo is listening in on one of the high tech conversations from the big cities. He hears a military transaction and after listening for only a few moments they become aware of Memo's eavesdropping and try to locate his position. Memo, hearing this, disconnects from the radio and breathes a sigh of relief but his actions were to little too late. After a few days, the military locates Memo's coordinates and sends a pilotless fighter jet, guided by a node worker for the US Government named Rudy played by Jacob Vargas. Also along for the ride is a live action feed from a reality television show called Drones! to film all the gory action. Memo and his brother are watching the show at a house outside of the village and listen as the commentator talks about how the military had obtained a terroristic transmission days earlier and their about to blow the hell out of the terrorist. They see the fighter jet zoom past the local dam and then suddenly arrive at their father's house. The jet fighter begins sending missiles into the house and the entire property is soon consumed with smoke and fire.

The Pilot as he controls the jet via nodes from hundreds of miles away.

After a few moments, a thermal spot on the jet fighter's sensor begins to move from the house and the television show's camera zooms in for the terrorist's close-up. Both Memo and his brother are taken aback as they see their father's bloody face come crawling out from the entrance of their home. The jet pilot is ordered to take the final death blow, but he hesitates for a moment. After the order is given two more times, the pilot reluctantly obeys and reigns death down onto the target. This action then propels Memo into an emotional storm of regret, betrayal, and finally redemption as he tries to right the wrong that he has inadvertently committed by setting off to get a good paying job to support his family.

Memo yet again contemplating life.

Memo sets out on his journey to the big city. He catches a ride on a overcrowded bus, hoping to find someone who can set him up with a node dealer so he will be able to apply for a job at one of the factories. It is here that he meets a young woman by the name of Luz played by the lovely Leonor Varela. I've only seen her in one other movie and that was Blade 2 and she did a bang up job in that one playing a vampire princess, but in this film she excels far above that aforementioned role and carves her place as a must see actress. Here she plays as Memo's bridge to a node job, giving him advice on where he can find a respectful place that will do the job right. During their trip they get to know each other a little bit and the conversation between the two is phenomenal. Right away you accept her as a trustworthy person and you believe that Memo is on the right path. You can feel the tiny sparks between the two actors and they play well off each other. This was actually the first clip that I saw of this film when it was first announces years ago, and from just viewing that little snippet I was hooked. I was intrigued to know what occurred after they got off that bus and that's the greatest achievement a director can shoot for; compelling the audience onward.

Memo and Luz's first meeting.

Memo arrives at night under the harsh neon lights of the city, as he makes his way to the district that Luz advised he check out. The place is crawling with shady peddlers and dealers so Memo moves on looking for a trustworthy face. A man stops him to tell Memo that he knows someone that can give him a node job for cheap. Memo, reluctant at first, finally decides to follow the man to an abandoned building where he is then knocked unconscious and then robed of what little money he had left. Waking up a few hours later he decides to make his way to a shanty town and stay there for the night, defeated and penniless.

If you see this man, don't trust his creepy grin.

On the other side of town, Luz is getting ready for bed and is loading her data stream onto her computer console which is represented by a huge see through flat screen. Luz's profession is a sort of videographer, but what she records is her own memories. She uploads them onto a website and people pay to view each story as they develop. She uploads her memory of meeting Memo on the bus and then goes to sleep. This concept of a memory videographer is rather intriguing considering the current obsession with social networking sites like facebook and its elder cousin myspace. People seem starved to know what new thing is going on in people's lives, no matter how mundane and trite it may appear to people that just don't get the voyeuristic appetite of this new peeping culture. I think the filmmakers did an excellent job in showing the extreme of this situation and possibly predicting the evolution of such sites. Would you pay to see someone else's memories? Would you think it immoral to present someone in your memory into the public eye for a price? The questions this film brings up are all valid and interesting in their own right and is precisely what a good science fiction film should bring to the table.

Luz uploads her memory of Memo for all the internet pervs to see.

When Luz wakes up in the morning she finds that her memory account is flooded with people wanting to know more about Memo's story, so she sets off to find him. When she finally finds him, Memo tells her what had happened with the robbing and she feels sorry for him and probably somewhat responsible since she guided him to the area he was mugged. She decides to bring him to a node dealer that she trusts so they make their way to a virtual bar.

Oh the beautiful colors!

Throughout the entire film, the director proves that he has a knack for producing a good looking image with eye popping colors. The vibrant blues of the network cords as they protrude from the ports on Luz's body, the neon reddish glow from the giant star sign outside the downtown district's main building, to the  somber orange hues of the desert sky in Memo's home village all lend to this kaleidoscope of a film and give the viewer a beautiful image to go along with the enchanting fish out of water story, but this all gets kicked into high gear as we enter the bar scene. As Memo and Luz enter the bar, they are introduced to a barrage of colors that smash the visual senses over the head with a mallet. Every inch of the frame is splashed with color, disorienting the viewer much like Memo feels disoriented by entering into the unknown. He truly is the fish out of water and this scene brings it right home, as he watches an obese shirtless man in a cowboy hat foundling himself as he is hooked up to the network enjoying some carnal delights courtesy of his node. The entire scene is shady, reminiscent of a bad drug deal, but Memo has faith in Luz and waits for her at the bar, until she returns with the ok to obtain his nodes. As she gestures for him to come into the back-room she proceeds to tell him that she'll be the one to do the procedure. Memo, still cautious, agrees because his trust with her seems absolute. I think that's a real key point the film tries to convey, though subtly in its execution. He never questions her loyalty or thinks that she has any ulterior motives, and this sets up the big reveal later on in the film perfectly. Once the procedure is complete it's off to see how the job market is doing.

And you thought you hated Mondays.

Well the job market is booming because before you can say node me up, Memo is at his first job as a virtual laborer. Memo arrives at his place of work and is introduced to the assembly line of co-workers who are performing manual labor throughout all of America. He is assigned to work a robot in the United States wielding rivets on a skyscraper and there are a few sequences that really stand out that portray the out of body experience of working a robot hundreds of miles away. One of these sequences occur after hours of working and a plate of glass is being lifted up the side of the skyscraper and Memo catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and sees the robot's face. It's a very sad moment, because it's almost like he has lost a part of his identity. Like he's a faceless worker that means nothing to the people that he is making this building for. He could very well not even exist in those people's minds. A very disheartening moment that I'm sure reflects the feeling many immigrants have when first arriving to America and tasked with a mundane job to help turn the wheels of industry for such a overbearing giant of a country that looks to you to prove your worth. Well after a few days of working at the old virtual factories it's off for some R & R.

A Hallmark moment.

As there relationship grows from strangers to an official couple, we begin to see the inevitable fact that Memo is going to find out about Luz selling memories about him and you can anticipate the backlash that's about to come like slowly riding a roller coaster to the top of the hill. You can look down and see how bad it is and you know there's no turning back. In order for them to go on with their relationship, they've got to take that steep plunge and hope to god that they still have their bodies and hearts intact once it's all said and done. You can feel the remorse that Luz has for going ahead with the memories too. She has fallen in love with Memo and doesn't want to hurt him. She's not a bad person, but she knows that it's something that Memo would not approve of by the way he reacted to her showing what she did for a living. He believes in privacy and above all privacy of his relationship with Luz. You really hope they can make it through this because the moments they're together really opens up their characters and shows them at their happiest. For both it's a redemption tale. For Memo it's proving himself as a man and providing for his mother and siblings. For Luz it's making it as a memory videographer. Both are obtaining their goals yet it's this little technicality that is threatening to burst the fantasy and send them on their separate ways.

There is also a third character in the mix that I've already mentioned earlier. Rudy, the jet fighter pilot that had killed Memo's father has been battling with doubt that what he was ordered to do was the right thing. He thought that once he joined the army that he would be fighting for something noble and he's beginning to have his doubts. Rudy stumbles across one of Luz's memories about Memo and subscribes to her story. He begins to obsess over Memo's story and wants to know more. He realizes that he is the son of the man he killed by watching the memories and decides to cross the border into mexico to ask Memo's forgiveness because it's eating away at him.

Rudy's determined to apologize for his mistakes.

Back in the world of happiness, the walls are coming crashing down because Memo has stumbled upon Luz's memories website while she's away and is blown away. I think for him the betrayal is so deep because she was the only one that he had encountered throughout this whole film that he trusted completely. She enters her apartment and catches Memo in the act and tries to explain but Memo ignores her and jets out of the apartment. This inevitable conflict had been coming for a while and when it does you really care about whether they come back together. I give full credit to the actors and the casting agents on this one. They found two great charismatic actors when they cast both Luis and Leonor. They really put everything up there on the screen and it pays off in full. So much so, that you really wish for a happy ending no matter how corny or hollywood that may be, but instead of the plastic hollywood couple you have what appears to be two real life people just trying to find some sort of happiness in their own twisted worlds. For me that's something to cheer about and it's what gives this movie that much more heart.

Trippy. Break on through to the other side, man.

After learning the truth, Memo hits it hard at work taking late night shifts and then working on throughout the next day. He becomes burnt out, losing himself in the only thing that he has left, working and sending home money to his family. He's lost any connection with the real world and is now becoming a drone, lost in the machine. Memo has also lost trust in people, well trust with the people of the big city, and shuts himself off from the rest of the world.

On the other side of this coin we have Luz. She, feeling horrible and guilty for not telling him about the memories, sets out to find him. She scours the sections of town that he used to frequent, but she can't find him anywhere.

Oh where, oh where has my Memo gone. Oh where, oh where can he be?

Memo also feels the need to revisit old locations and memories, when he takes a walk on one of the beaches that Luz had taken him to. Everyone has done it at least once in there life. Walked the path of memories even though it only hurts in the end. This just makes their characters that more flushed out and it's one of the things that I most appreciate in a sci-fi film. I love when the futuristic technology is infused into the everyday life of the character, set on the back burner, while the human element of the story is front and center. It truly brings the film to life and allows us as the viewer to believe in this place and time as fact, nothing more or less.

The lonely walk of the sad bastard. We've all been there.

The story eventually comes together for Rudy the ashamed jet pilot and Memo, when Rudy finally tracks down Memo outside a restaurant. He sits down and tells Memo the story, apologizing for having killed his father. Memo doesn't react kindly to the news, but doesn't react with venom, but with denial. He runs from the situation and boards a bus not wanting to deal with any more heart break, but Rudy pursues him, wanting his forgiveness. The two eventually come to an unsaid understanding and Rudy exits the bus to let Memo brood over all that has happened.

Let the brooding begin.

Memo thinks about all that has happened. The labor factories, the government controlled dams in his village, the military taking his father's life over a simple misunderstanding and an even simpler distrust, and for the main fact that all this technology, that he's been fawning over, is good for is keeping people apart, turning them into mindless drones. He had lost someone he cared about because Luz felt she had to keep the memory selling from him, because he did not understand it. This technology was keeping him apart from humanity, from the world. As Memo comes to from his revelation, he exits the bus at the next stop and runs back to meet up with Rudy. When they meet up they both come to the conclusion that by busting up the dam at Memo's home town, all will be forgiven. They devise a plan to break into Memo's work and hook Rudy up to the network to control his jet fighter. Having forgiven Luz and refusing to let technology keep him from someone he cares about, he goes to her house to ask her to help with the plan. She agrees, seeing that it's the least she can do for him after lying to him about the memories. The three, all effected in some way by the controlling government and their network of infused technology into the culture, set off to right at least one wrong.

Rudy prepares to make amends.

They break in and hook Rudy up to the network. Rudy takes control of his fighter jet and proceeds to make the run to the dam. After a few hairpin moves and a handful of missiles we have a breach in the dam and we have flowing water for all to enjoy. Yippee!

Sounds like my grandfather taking a leak.

Everything comes together in the end and each character is redeemed in some sort of way. Rudy is amended for wronging Memo, and Memo and Luz now have each other after Luz had proven herself by helping Memo when he needed her the most. A pretty good wrap up with no loose ends to speak of, but in my opinion it's not about the ending but the journey that our characters take. It was all by chance and random circumstance that they met yet they had such a profound effect on each other that it almost contradicts the whole meaning of technology is bad. I mean doesn't technology bring people together and give them an even bigger chance of intersecting in each other's lives? I mean that's how my wife and I met.

Maybe it's the amount of technological living that is the big problem. The threat that our lives will be consumed by technology where it gets to the point that we aren't even going outside to actual experience life, but hooking in, jacking up, or just logging into a social network to get our fix of humanity. Whatever the intended reaction or proposed opinion of the director, I applaud them for making a film that not only brings to mind an important issue, but can also make a damned entertaining movie in the process where you don't necessarily have to gain a social perspective from it. This is a grade A science fiction film that pulls the science and technology to the foreground yet pushes it back enough that it lets a rather human story come into the spotlight. In every aspect it celebrates the belief in the human spirit and the right to follow your dreams. This is a must for any fan of the independent science fiction film persuasion.

5 out of 5 stars     A Future Sci-Fi Classic!


  1. Wow.. Now I don't even have to watch the movie. It is all here.

    How about a "Review" vs. Giving us a (nearly) scene by scene account of this movie.


  2. Personally, I don't think someone describing a movie takes away anything from a film. I've read tons of reviews that describe every last detail of a flick, but when I actually get to see it I'm blown away by the film and how I view it with my own eyes.

    I watch movies for a deeper meaning then for just being entertained by just the story outline. There's the combination of colors, camera movements, composition, soundscapes, and everything in between that completes a movie and makes it what it is.

    No one can ruin that for you unless you go in wanting that to happen. Sorry if I gave to much away and described it so well that you don't even have to see it, but that's just my writing style and how I'm going to be putting my blog together.

    I believe that everyone has their own opinion on what they think is a good film and a bad film and what they like and don't like. Watch the movie for yourself and make your own mind up. Watch it with all of the elements that it takes for a movie to come together and don't judge it from a write up by some person you don't even know who might have tastes that are far different from you.

    Thanks for checking it out.

  3. I agree with Gene. I'm currently working on a paper over this film for a graduate film course, and was hoping to find some insight into the film that I hadn't considered before. I've seen the film (many times) and, while this blog post makes it clear that you are a fan of the film and your summary does incorporate some of the key ideas, I wished you had spent more time delving into the issues beyond just in the last paragraph. As my professors say, "I've seen the film...I don't need you to tell me what happened. What I do need to know is 'WHY it happened." If, as you claim, you "watch movies for a deeper meaning then for just being entertained by just the story outline. There's the combination of colors, camera movements, composition, soundscapes, and everything in between that completes a movie and makes it what it is," then enlighten the rest of us to these discoveries and their significance instead of merely reporting the plot. I don't mean any disrespect, this is intended to be constructive criticism.