This weekend, my husband and I went to see Sleep Dealer, a science fiction feature film made by director Alex Rivera. The movie turned out to be incredibly satisfying science fiction. Set in Santa Ana del Rio, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, and in Tijuana, the film depicts a cynical version of the American dream–cheap labor for wealthy countries imported from Mexico via virtual reality. The system leaves the wealthy countries completely absolved of responsibility for those workers–Americans don’t have to see them, hear them, treat them in emergency rooms, or bear any responsibility for the personal consequences of the labor they endure. What made this movie so brilliant, I think, is its utter (and unfortunate) plausibility, combined with a compelling, character-driven story.
The main character, Memo Cruz, is a hacker who travels to Tijuana to sell his labor overseas after his home is destroyed. Memo becomes involved in a romance with a woman who sells her memories for a living, and, through her, with the man who was in some ways responsible for the destruction of his home. Rivera has a lot to say about justice, love, and interpersonal connections. In particular, I was interested in his exploration of how technology has the potential to distance people from each other, but also to bring people closer together. The labor-through-virtual-reality scheme is made possible by nodes installed in workers’ bodies. Though these nodes involve Memo in an ultimate form of alienated labor, they also are the means by which he becomes connected to the people who do care about and want to help him.
The story was tight. Rivera did an excellent job of building tension by showing what was at stake for the characters–he didn’t rely on explosions and adrenaline. Every character had complex and believable motivations. The story was only possible because of the technology, but it was also a deeply human story–gold standard SF from my perspective.
I’ve seen some criticism of the ending–it does smack a bit of a fairy tale. I liked it, though. I spent the entire movie feeling incredible dread and fear. I appreciated that Rivera didn’t treat a horrific outcome as inevitable. This was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. If it’s showing anywhere near you, or if you can get it on Netflix, I highly recommend it.
A few random observations:
It gave me a warm feeling to see Memo with a book called “Hackear para Pricipantes” (hacking for beginners). It was nice to see a really universal image of hacking, and I had a feeling that this gave a glimpse into Rivera’s personal life.
There were many good touches in the story–at one point, a character crosses the border into Mexico and is challenged by a robot obviously being controlled by a worker from India. This gives a feeling of how global the story’s premise really is.
It was both unsurprising and painful to see the way the United States was portrayed in the film. A popular TV show is called Drones (it ends up playing a major role in the movie’s plot). Its tagline is “blow the hell out of the bad guys.” Sigh. Yes, that sounds like something we would watch in the U.S.
The movie’s premise reminded me a great deal of the premise in “New Wineskins” by Richard A. Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross, published last year in Analog. I blogged about that story, though not about its premise. I think it would be interesting to compare the movie and the story side by side–they’ve both got valuable commentary on the phenomenon of globalization.