Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sleep Dealer

I should say at the outset that I am not a cinephile. Don't get me wrong. I like movies. But I have to be in the right mood, and I'm picky about what I'll watch and even pickier about what I enjoy. It's not something I've chosen, I'm just that way.

I am, however, a great fan of science fiction, for its fun, escapist aspect (spaceships! lasers! green women with three boobs!), but more importantly because science fiction, as a genre, essentially boils down to a lot of very smart people sitting down and thinking 'Hm. What if the world were thus-like? What kind of lives would people lead? What kinds of conflict would arise? How does that relate to where we are now, historically?' and then working out the answers and presenting them in a narrative form that is not only thought-provoking but also entertaining and engaging.

Yes, yes, I know, it can be a bit like putting vitamins in candy. But I don't think that that undermines the essential worthwhile-itude of the genre. They're still vitamins, after all.

Science fiction cinema tends to be a mixed-bag for me. Hollywood (where you pretty much have to go to get the money to do science fiction movies, relying as they largely do on SFX and CGI) tends to trend more escapist than substantive, because they're a capitalist, for-profit industry, and as such they tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the hope that it will bring the largest possible number of people to the theatres. This is why most science fiction cinema tends to downplay its thought-provoking aspects in favor of more tried-and-true formulas, meaning that, for the most part, science fiction movies are usually either action or horror movies that just happen to occur in some sort of futuristic setting. Sometimes they're quite good, science-fictionally speaking, but very rarely, it seems, does the cinematic world really sit up and take notice of science fiction's potential for explaining today in terms of our likely tomorrows.

Sleep Dealer, directed by Alex Rivera, is an exception to that rule, and not a half-bad movie to boot. The trailer makes it look all action-y and exciting, I know, but the movie itself is really all about a small set of very human stories that are tied together and nested ineluctably in a near-term future history that is so plausible that it'll make you cringe a little when you see it, because you know that unless we (humanity, that is, not even just us Amur'kins) change course, and soon, that that is likely the shape of things to come.

(spoiler alert: what follows may or may not reduce your enjoyment of the film by revealing the setting and plot outline; I'll try to leave enough blank so as not to ruin the movie, but read on at your own risk)

Sleep Dealer is a movie that could only have come from south of the border. It's not that its portrayal of Americans is unflattering, it's that its fundamental perspective is not one that most Americans will recognize. Set in Mexico (in Oaxaca and Tijuana) in the near future, the world of Sleep Dealer puts a cinematic (and human) face on an all-too-plausible scenario. Memo, the protagonist of the film, is a farmer's son and ham-radio operator in a dusty village in the deserts of central Mexico. His village is dying, dried up and desiccated thanks to the dam on the river, built and maintained by a (literally) faceless corporation. Water must be purchased (cash up front) at usurious rates (around $10/gallon). Although there are actual guards by the reservoir, the gate is remotely operated from America. Every camera has a gatling gun attached, and there is, unsurprisingly, very little compunction on the part of the operators about pulling the trigger. By day, Memo helps his father on the farm. At night, he listens in on the ham radio and dreams of having nodes implanted so he can go online and become a node-worker. The nodes are similar to the Matrix, cyborg tech interfaces that allow the user to enter an online world not unlike virtual reality, and make the remote operation of machinery (and weaponry) both intuitive and easy. Meanwhile, his brother is addicted to American TV, most especially a show called Drones, modelled on COPS, only about the heroic efforts of the drone pilots who find and kill 'terrorists' (people stealing water, say) with high-tech long-range weaponry, probably not unlike what's happening right now in the mountains of AF-PAK.

When his father is killed, Memo makes the pilgrimage to Tijuana, which, though the border is permanently closed, remains a Mecca for those seeking a better life, thanks in no small part to its booming remote-machinery-operation industry, in factories called 'Sleep Dealers' (so called because after a long shift you collapse in exhaustion). Thanks to the good offices of Luz, a freelance writer who sells narrativized versions of her memories on TrueNode (a YouTube style website that functions as an open market for the sale of such things), Memo manages to get some nodes implanted and finds work at one of the Sleep Dealers. The work? Remotely operating a construction droid on a San Diego skyscraper. Just like a real Mexican, only without all the hassle of immigrating.

Luz has her own agenda, of course. She's not a very successful writer, but she does have one client, who's interested in learning more about Memo. The client is Rudy, a Hispanic-American drone pilot whose connection to Memo drives the latter third of the movie and provides the denouement.

I'll leave the remaining plot intricacies here, as I don't want to wholly ruin the movie for those of you that might actually watch it, which I recommend. It's not the best movie I ever watched, in terms of cinematic excellence, but it's a solid film that works both as a story and as social/future-historical commentary. The most striking thing about it, and the main thrust of the this blog post, is the sheer plausibility of its vision of our near future. The outside colonization of developing-world resources, the militarization of their defense (Rudy is a soldier, not a private contractor), and the outsourcing of everything to remote operators in countries where labor is cheaper (there's hilarious scene where Rudy crosses the border into Mexico, and the camera/gun is clearly operated by someowe in India) are all themes that resonate because they're based not only in present reality but in its very obvious trajectories. The power of the film is as much about its vision of the future as it is about the character and narrative arcs, which are determined by that vision but also stand on their own as all-too-human and believable.

It's thought-provoking stuff, a testament to the power of film to make something like this feel real, in a way that would be difficult to attain so viscerally through words and even still images alone. I recommend checking it out, and not only enjoying it for what it is (a decent movie) but also thinking about the future it envisions and what it would mean, and whether or not you think that's okay. Sleep Dealer raises a lot of questions, and they're really not that hypothetical. The finitude of resources like water, and the knee-jerk aversion to immigration on the part of Americans (even while we depend on the cheap labor that results), as well as our vicarious enjoyment of the application of violence to far-away people with darker skin, resonate precisely because they are so grounded in reality. It's a future you could easily see happening. Hell, it might even seem inevitable to the cynics among us. Either way, it's well-worth a viewing, and some pretty serious contemplation afterward.

No comments: