April 20, 2009
I went to see a good movie that opened on Friday--Sleep Dealer by first time director Alex Rivera [official site]. It's only playing in New York and LA so far, but it got a pretty good review in the Times from A.O. Scott and hopefully will get to other cities.
The movie is about the near future when the US-Mexico border has been closed. American employers still hire Mexican workers for construction and factory jobs and to work as bus boys and in child care, but the workers are all lined up in warehouses in Mexico, manipulating robots in the US via wires connecting their bodies to a big, centralized node network. Glowing blue wires plug directly into workers' central nervous system through nodes that they get riveted onto their arms and backs (see the movie poster), usually on the black market by a "coyotek" (ha). We follow a young guy from Oaxaca named Memo as he comes to Tijuana to get some nodes and find work.
People also use their nodes for entertainment: they can connect directly to their computers to upload memories and make them available for sale, and can connect to other people during sex and achieve some kind of sexy psychic mind-meld.
There are lots of ideas here that we've seen before. People's life energy being used by sentient machines through sockets in their bodies is right out of The Matrix. William Gibson's Neuromancer has people connecting their bodies and brains directly to their computers. There's also some of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (though the nodes in that movie were fleshier and more orifice-like, since Cronenberg loves weird orifices) and Strange Days, where people illegally sell their memories.
But Sleep Dealer goes beyond straight sci-fi with some interesting connections to real immigration policy and other ways that the US exploits Mexico. In the movie, American companies use workers' labor while offering no benefits of citizenship, decent working conditions, or basic safety. Sound familiar? The movie also shows the US owning most of the water in Mexico, charging local residents high prices and killing any suspected "aqua-terrorists" who try to get access to their own natural resource. In real life, the US uses almost all the water of the Colorado River, and the little bit that reaches Mexico is salty and gross.
The movie has some smart references to the US-Mexico bracero program that operated from World War II until the 1960s that allowed Mexican guest workers to take temporary jobs in the US with guaranteed minimum wages and benefits. The program was good for a lot of workers, but also encouraged some employers to hire Mexican workers outside the bracero program if they would agree to work for lower wages and no benefits, setting up the kind of exploitation that's still going on now. The factory where Mexicans go to plug in and work remotely in the US is called Cybracero (see Memo's uniform in the photo above.)
There's also a storyline involving a smart and beautiful writer that Memo meets, Luz, who starts secretly selling her memories of their encounters on TruNode, a market for other people's memories. When Memo finds out what she's doing, it reminded me of every blogger that's gotten fired or dumped for oversharing on their public website or Facebook.
The movie premiered at the 2008 Sundance and is only making it to theaters now. It's small and low-budget, but pretty smart and original in its take on ideas we've seen before. The Ain't It Cool News review from Sundance says "If this film is director Rivera's THX, I can't wait to see his Star Wars."
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