Edinburgh International Film Festival

Sleep Dealer (2008)

Starring: Luis Fernando Peņa, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas

Directed by: Alex Rivera

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Luz (Leonor Varela) logs on in Sleep Dealer

Mexico. The future. The rivers have been damned up into vast reservoirs and water is purchased by the litre. While country folk scratch a living from the dry earth, in the cities, factory workers have become semi-cyborgs, fixed up in dingy backstreet surgeries with intravenous 'nodes' and hooked up to the internet in enormous node factories known as sleep dealers, providing virtual labour in America.

Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) is a restless country boy who dreams of a better life in the city. But be careful what you wish for, because his dream comes true rather sooner than he envisaged when he hacks into the American Army's frequency and in response, they blow up his house, with his father in it. Of course, the lights of the big city don't shine so bright once he gets there and finds himself working twelve hours shifts in a sleep dealer, controlling a robot welder on a building site in San Diego, running the risk of being fried alive from the inside should the system overload.

Things brighten when he hooks up (literally) with writer Luz (Leonor Varela), but what Memo doesn't know is that his new girlfriend is selling her memories of him online to a very interested buyer – the virtual fighter pilot who bombed his house.

As a dystopic vision of the future, Sleep Dealer is not entirely original. Like Bladerunner or Children of Men, it portrays a world that is dreary, lonely and grimy round the edges where, as in Strange Days or the sci-fi of William Gibson, virtual reality has almost replaced authentic, meaningful human contact, allowing people to communicate across the globe but never touch, to read each other's thoughts, but never understand them.

Sleep Dealer's real USP, however, is the horribly plausible concept of the node workers, which allows the United States to exploit immigrant labour without actually having to let any immigrants into the country. The scenes in the node factory are chilling, as Memo and his co-workers go silently about their jobs, entangled in wires attached to their nodes, oxygen masks in place to keep them awake and blank contact lenses immersing them entirely in their virtual worlds. One poignant scene sees Memo confront his robot self in a plate of glass, staring curiously into his own LED eyes like a non-cute Wall-E, his own identity subsumed into the his parallel cyber existence.

Like The Matrix without the cod philosophy, Sleep Dealer offers an intriguing, shocking and eerily credible vision of a future society on the road to machine enslavement, in which the gap between rich and poor has grown even wider and human contact has gone out of style. But its cautiously hopeful ending allows us to cling to the belief that the human spirit cannot be broken completely by alienating technology, corporate despotism and ruthless governmental domination. The future's bright? Not entirely, but there's a ray of light there all the same.

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