This deserves points for telling a cyberpunk story from the point of view of the type of character whose misery is usually of concern to a regular movie hero but is still too much of a peon to shoulder a whole plot – it’s kind of a Johnny Mnemomic take on the world of Amores Perros.
In the future, Mexico is even more exploited – huge dams have cut off poor farmers’ irrigation, and access to the hyper-internet is limited to those who have ‘nodes’ implanted in their bodies. Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) helps his father trudge to the dam to pay exorbitant fees to an automated system – at once a remote camera, a machine gun and a cash-in-the-slot money transfer – to get water to carry to their field. Memo fiddles with old radios and listens in on chatter, but his signal is mistaken for a trace of terrorist activity and a drone plane, remotely piloted by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), destroys the homestead and kills the father; the air strike is shown on television in a horribly believable Cops-style reality show in which Rudy is exorted to ‘blow away the bad guys’. Memo heads for Tijuana to get nodes implanted (in a gruesome process reminiscent of the one in eXistenZ) so he can work in a factory where Mexicans remotely pilot robots on US building sites or in other menial jobs – giving America the ideal of immigrant labour without any actual immigrants. On the bus, Memo meets the unfeasably gorgeous Luz (Leonor Varela), a student whose income derives from posting her memories on line and selling them – Rudy comes across her memories of Memo, and pays her to learn more as he picks at the scab of his guilts.
Directed and co-written by Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer works its way towards a fairly predictable upbeat finish, in which Rudy rebels and destroys the dam, but the details of this miserable future are more telling than the happyish ending – the rows of Mexicans hooked up to machines like the workers in Metropolis and piloting WALL-E-look builders’ robots until they drop, the trivial American broadcast media selling hideous injustice as an old-fashioned white hats/black hats shoot ‘em up, the slice of life porn version of MySpace. It’s good on the stirrings of rebellion in people programmed to behave – when Rudy, in clear distress, tells his parents ‘I killed a man’, his mother quickly affirms ‘and we’re proud of you’. It’s even admirable that Rudy is a Mexican-American rather than the Tom Cruise-type caucasian fighter jock any studio would want as a conflicted hero, with putupon Memo edged out of centre screen.