(By Eric D. Snider - reposted from 1/28/08 Sundance Festival review)
In the future, our immigration problems will be solved by having Mexicans do their menial work with remote-controlled robots. We'll get our cheap labor, and the Mexicans will stay on their side of the border.
That's according to Sleep Dealer, which makes the suggestion satirically, of course. Set in the near future, the film is loaded with interesting sci-fi concepts but suffers in the execution of them. It falls back on too many clichés and spends too much time on an uninteresting subplot -- problems that could have been avoided if the film weren't so focused on presenting its nifty futuristic quirks.
Our hero is Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a young man in an arid Mexican village that was ruined several years ago when a water company dammed up the river. In this world, private companies control the water and charge ridiculous prices for it, protected and enabled by the U.S. government. Also in this world, the Internet has expanded to such a degree that you can have nodes implanted into your arms and neck and plug directly into the Information Superhighway. Once you're connected, you can upload your memories and broadcast or sell them a la YouTube.
This node-based Internet has other uses. The U.S. military no longer has to worry about pilots being killed on dangerous air missions, as they can stay safely at headquarters and control drone planes by connecting their nodes to the planes' computer systems. There's also the migrant labor situation I mentioned earlier. Small robots pick fruit and build skyscrapers, controlled by node-implanted Mexicans in warehouses in Tijuana.
Memo wants a job like that so he can support his impoverished family, and it's while looking for work in Tijuana that he meets Luz (Leonor Varela), an aspiring journalist who sells her memories online to make ends meet. She's fascinated by Memo's story -- he suffered a personal tragedy when the U.S. military suspected him of being a terrorist -- and uploads her daily encounters with him onto the Net. One of her regular buyers is a rookie military pilot named Rudy (Jacob Vargas), who feels guilty for having killed an innocent bystander on a drone mission and wants to make amends.
Rudy's quest for atonement slows the film down considerably. He's a secondary character with little personality who is suddenly thrust to the forefront, and his story simply isn't as compelling as Memo's. Then again, Memo's romance with Luz suffers from the usual movie conflicts, including the inevitable moment when he discovers that she's been selling her memories of him and he feels betrayed.
You gotta hand it to director Alex Rivera (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Riker) for even attempting a sci-fi film on an indie budget. And as it turns out, the semi-lame special effects are not the problem -- it's the script that needs polishing. Rivera has a lot of ideas, and some of them are very clever, like the sleazy guys in Tijuana's back alleys who offer "node jobs," i.e., hooking you up to the system so you don't have to pay a doctor to do it professionally. But the film needs more focus. Even with only three main characters it feels over-crowded with plot lines, and consequently isn't nearly as fun to watch as it sounds like it should be.