(2008)3.5Derek ArmstrongThe 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican took a satirical look at where the U.S. would be without Mexican labor. Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer almost functions as its non-satirical science fiction cousin -- maybe "A Day When Mexicans Remotely Control Labor Robots." An overworked Tijuana-based labor force that operates worker robots in the U.S. virtually is just one of Rivera's bold visions of a possible future -- most of which are refreshingly unindebted to other films, even though The Matrix in particular was evoked in the film's ad campaign. Many of the characters in Sleep Dealer do have metal nodes grafted to their back and arms at various junctures, à la The Matrix. But writer-director Rivera takes this similar imagery in his own direction, allowing for cutting-edge commentary on the closing of borders between the U.S. and Mexico, hypersensitivity toward terrorism, Internet obsession, the future scarcity of water, and our fascination with ever-more-debased reality TV.
Our guide through this world is Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a Oaxacan farmer's son who moves to the big city for the most common of reasons: he needs to send money back to his family, after being inadvertently to blame for his father's death. Memo is quiet, dignified, and easy to identify with. There's plenty else Rivera fits in, including a romantic subplot with a would-be writer (Leonor Varela) who's using the nodes and cables to sell her memories on the black market. Sleep Dealer won't be mistaken for a Hollywood release, but that's probably a good thing, as it maintains a distinctly Mexican character while offering special effects with enough Hollywood polish to make the grade. The cool score by Tomandandy also deserves special praise. But maybe it's Rivera's ideas that truly set him apart from Hollywood -- namely, the fact that he has some.