Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sleep Dealer - It's Not About Black Market Halcion

Sleep Dealer is a story of connection and disconnection set in a future so near it's already the land of the possible. Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) is a bored young man living on a milpa (everyone but me apparently already knew this is a farm where corn and beans grow symbiotically in the same field) in very rural Santa Ana, Oaxaca, Mexico. The town is arid, its river dammed into a reservoir guarded by an electronic perimeter, its water sold locally only by the liter for an exorbitant price. Memo's father dreams of the river's return. Memo dreams of getting away.

Memo hacks into the universe just to hear something that's not Santa Ana, but intercepts the signal from the reservoir security system, igniting disaster for his family. A drone military aircraft, piloted from San Diego by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a new recruit on his first mission, terminates an aqua terrorist attack on the reservoir with extreme prejudice. The terrorist is cleverly disguised as a thirsty native trespasser and the incident is broadcast on live network TV. The next day Rudy, operating via nodal connections that link his neural system to the drone's controls via the Internet, goes after the site of that signal interception. Memo is visiting relatives, but his father is home.

Memo needs work to support what's left of his family. He takes the bus to Tijuana, meeting Luz (Leonor Varela), an attractive writer with connecting nodes like the drone pilot. The Mexico-US border is closed - with a forbidding wall that extends across the beach and out into the ocean - but Tijuana looks the same. Would be crossers don't need to jump the fence, just enlist a coyotek to implant nodes, show up at the cyberfactory and plug into a net that allows them to labor by operating robotic tools anywhere in the world. Memo gets off to a rocky start. At Luz's suggestion, he prowls the town square for black market nodes, but he's left stunned and broke by a mugger posing as a coyotek.

Luz nodally uploads the memory of her meeting with Memo onto Trulife, a universal blog that seems to accept direct sensory input from its posters, while imperiously prompting them to try again when they dissemble. Luz's other memories aren't selling lately, so when the post on Memo gets a hit and a request for more, she's happy to oblige. She finds Memo in town, hooks him up, literally, with nodes and a job and stays in touch, gathering marketable memories. Memo grows on Luz, while the mysterious subscriber always wants more. The ending may be predictable, but As Good As News will not spoil it here.

Sleep Dealer is worth seeing, at home or in the theater. Do not go with false expectations. It was shot in Mexico, in Spanish on a low budget. You will be seeing subtitles, not billion dollar special effects. Despite the budget, Sleep Dealer is very successful at creating a completely believable futuristic aura, in part because Director Alex Rivera, Producer Anthony Bregman and Associate Producer Mark Russell get tremendous bang for their buck, in part because the sci-fi relies on very credible, incremental extensions of the present. A first world country uses it's drone air force to protect a private water reservoir across the border. The ability to focus the drone attack on a small target is technologically spellbinding, but target selection seems to fall in the unsupervised purview of private industry. The war on aqua terror is mass public entertainment, while the Internet has grown adept at capturing and micro-marketing inner moments (note to twitter - its the marketing that's micro - not the posts). The net and robotics have combined to create an outsourcing model that transcends geographic borders, making physical barriers at those borders all the more possible. If this all sounds like a Law and Order episode, ripped from the headlines, give Mr. Rivera extra credit, he wrote the story in 2001.

There's not much room for character development. Memo, and particularly Luz get beyond simple stereotypes, Rudy not so much. Futuristic setting aside, the plot is simple and serviceable, but sometimes awkwardly paced. These problems, especially the fact that Rudy is critical to the story's resolution but never fully developed, make for a few slow moments and an ending that's not totally satisfactory, but see Sleep Dealer anyway. The story and the characters are good enough, the setting will give you much to think about.

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