Sleep Dealer grapples with the Latino immigrant experience. Before you click away in been-there boredom, know that it does so by harnessing the batty tropes of science fiction: It sets its protagonist, an itinerant laborer, within a dystopian, technocratic, Philip K. Dickian near future in which a war over water rights, pitting freedom fighters against corporations and the governments that love them, has devastated the Mexican economy. The recent Sugar, which cloaks its immigrant story in the trappings of a neorealist baseball movie, might handle more effectively the bleak reality of the migrant workhorse. But Sleep Dealer is a hell of a lot more entertaining.
By day, Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) works on the family farm with his father, fetching water rations from a dammed reservoir guarded by cameras and soldiers with guns. (The politics of water vaguely evoke Chinatown.) By night, he uses ramshackle technology to intercept telephone conversations recreationally, leading the U.S. to mistake him for an “aqua terrorist.” As a result, the American military vaporizes his home, and father, with a missile from an unmanned aircraft; the attack is broadcast live on the reality TV show Drones, a spot-on pop-culture satire that seems like a deleted scene from Southland Tales.
Memo flees to Tijuana, a border town where back-alley dealers fit him with “nodes,” ports implanted in the flesh a la eXistenZ. On the one hand, these sockets seem to have something to do with illicit drugs: They resemble track marks, get “hooked up,” and are sometimes plugged in at a bar (which, incidentally, recalls Star Wars‘s cantina). But, more to the point, they enable a globalized workforce: The nodes allow Memo to operate U.S.-based constructo-bots remotely, satisfying an American dream of a xenophobic stripe—foreign labor without the immigration.
Sleep Dealer posits the U.S. as a cruel, unjust, and exploitative terrorist nation; through ancillary characters and subplots, it also examines soldier’s remorse, YouTube, and Janet Malcolm-esque ethical dilemmas regarding the reporter-subject relationship. With a lot on its mind, as well as a small budget and first-time director with which to work through it all, the movie naturally has its share of problems: a convoluted plot, overt themes, cheesy special effects, and the whirr-and-buzz pacing of a 24 episode. But it compensates for those shortcomings, somewhat, with a coherent allegory that emerges from a thoroughly realized alternate reality. The dam, for example, functions nicely as a border-wall metaphor, as it restricts access to resources.
Most of the immigration movies made these days come across as feel-bad lessons in the hardships facing Latino immigrants; Sleep Dealer also demonstrates the difficulties that result from leaving home to find work, but in classic B-movie fashion it has a lot of fun with it too: The film’s Mexico is not only impoverished and overrun with armed rebels—it’s infested with arachnid squeegeemen. Unfortunately, neither Sangre de Mi Sangre nor Sin Nombre can claim the same.