Dir: Alex Rivera. Mexico/US. 2008. 90 mins.
Alex Rivera's low budget futuristic thriller Sleep Dealer is set in the near future where the USA has been sealed off from Mexico yet Mexican workers still do all the hard labour through technology. A selection in dramatic competition at Sundance last week and the winner of the screenplay prize, the film is certainly to be admired for its ambition but falls down critically in the plot department and ultimately comes off as more concept than absorbing story.

It's a marvel of sorts that a film this ambitious was produced on such a modest budget (a reported $2m), let alone with the visual panache and highly respectable special effects that Rivera brings to it. And while the Spanish-language film has little chance of making any indent in the mainstream, it has the potential to achieve profile and awareness in the US Latin community as well as sales to Mexico (where it is set) and Spanish-language territories. A zealous following will also develop among sci-fi and genre nerds and it will be a staple on this year's fantasy festival circuit.

Borrowing liberally from classics of the genre like eXistenZ, Minority Report and Blade Runner, Rivera nevertheless invents a milieu of contemporary relevance about the control of the water supply, corporate militarization and the US immigration question.

The hero of the film is Memo Cruz (Pena), a young man who lives with his parents and brother in the small, arid village of Santa Ana del Rio in Mexico. The village water supply has been taken over by a large US company which has built a securely protected dam that has changed the landscape of the region. Like Luke Skywalker was on Tattooine, Memo is bored in Santa Ana del Rio and dreams of going to work for the high-tech factories in the north.

Sitting in his room alone at night, he uses a homemade radio intercept to eavesdrop on conversations and one day he overhears the communications of the security forces patrolling the area around his village to protect the dam from aqua-terrorists.

Unknown to him, those same forces have discovered his intercept and identified him as a threat; while he and his brother are away for the day, the house is bombed and his father ruthlessly gunned down by a fighter plane controlled remotely by Rudy Ramirez (Vargas). (More shades of Luke Skywalker's story here)

With his father dead, Memo needs to make money for the family so he sets off to the border city of Tijuana to fulfill his dream of working in the factories; on the way there he meets the beautiful Luz (Varela), an aspiring journalist, and the two form a bond.

Luz helps him get illegal nodes implanted in his body which will connect him to the digital network that connects everything in the world. She also uploads his story onto the net via her own nodes and discovers that someone has bought her memory and wants to buy more stories about Memo.

As Memo gets work in the factories, controlling robots on the US side with his nervous system, his illusions are shattered. The factories work the Mexicans hard (the factories are known as 'sleep dealers') and many die on the job. His one consolation is that he is providing for his family and falling in love with Luz, only to discover that she is using him to provide more memories to her mysterious buyer.

It's not too hard to work out who the buyer is nor what will happen in the end, but the pleasures of the film are in the details, and the production boasts a visual design which is as good as it gets, if limited in scale. Rivera will no doubt go on to make major studio films, and Sleep Dealer might become best-known as his calling card.

Production companies
Likely Story

c/o Schreck, Rose, Dapello,
Adams & Hurwitz & UTA

Executive producers
Guy Naggar
Peter Klimt

Anthony Bregman

Alex Rivera
David Riker

Lisa Rinzler

Production designer
Miguel Angel Alvarez

Alex Rivera


Main cast
Luis Fernando Pena
Leonor Varela
Jacob Vargas
Tenoch Huerta
Metztli Adamina
Jose Conepcion Macias
Emilio Guerrero