Most of Sleep Dealer’s crimes are minor: engaging in chafingly earnest allegory; showing the speed and sense of purpose of a lead-poisoned snail; shameless pilfering from both The Big Book of Science Fiction Clichés and The Pinko Mud Farmer’s Guide to Oppressive Capitalist Film Tropes — all forgivable in a first-time feature filmmaker trying to break through with a serious drama. The sin that cannot be forgiven, however, the transgression so irresponsible that director Alex Rivera might actually be wanted by the authorities, is titling a film this mind-numbingly dull with a quip-ready moniker that, were the film on anyone’s radar, would threaten to make it the movie that launched a thousand hack movie critic puns.
— “Sleep Dealer made your bed, now you get to lie in it!” Ben Lyons, “At the Movies”
Sleep Dealer envisions a near-future world in which a combination of xenophobia, virtual reality technology, and good old fashioned corporate greed have resulted in the U.S. closing its southern border to immigration while at the same time continuing to rely on low-wage foreigners to perform menial labor remotely through the use of robots. Mexican workers flock to border facilities where they plug into machines to operate the robots in the U.S., providing a virtual workforce. Meanwhile, Mexican villagers attempting to adhere to their traditional way of life feel the squeeze of privatized water supplies which allow corporations to charge them for that most fundamental of resources. These corporate interests are protected by American drone aircraft, also manned virtually in order to eliminate risk to pilots. While this all may sound fairly interesting on a purely theoretical level, let me assure you that it is not, at least not in this movie.
— “If you don’t see this film, you’re asleep at the switch!” Harry Knowles, AICN
Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a rural Mexican on the verge of adulthood, leaves his home to find work in a virtual labor facility in Tijuana after inadvertently triggering a drone attack on his village. In Tijuana, Memo meets a mysterious woman, Luz (Leonor Varela), who works the black market illegally outfitting would-be workers with the body nodes needed to jack into the network controlling the robots. Luz helps Memo get nodes implanted, but unbeknownst to Memo, Luz also works another thrumming black market selling recorded memories to third parties as virtual experiences they can plug into for entertainment. This aspect of Luz’s business leads Memo to an indirect connection with a U.S. soldier who may have his own interest in Memo.
— “You’ll need an Ambien after the excitement of Sleep Dealer! Pow!” Pat Collins, WWOR-TV
Varela does solid work as the mysterious Luz, and Peña is competent as well, though his default mode of contemplative naivete wears a little thin. Neither has sufficient charisma or gravity to elevate the material, and Sleep Dealer the concept is a great deal more intriguing than Sleep Dealer the feature film. Indeed, Sleep Dealer has no shortage of interesting ideas, even if most of them have been mined by other (better) films. In particular, the film offers a timely focus on the hypocrisy of an economic superpower using technology to corral and exclude the very workers that same technology allows to be exploited through the performance of menial labor. The sci-fi elements are sharply realized, impressive given the film’s small budget, and the conceptual connection between the use of virtual labor and the sale of extracted human experiences is logical and gripping enough to support a compelling sub-text.
— “Far more intriguing than my most disturbing and bizarre sexual dreams … even after a spicy dinner!” Jeffrey Lyons, WNBC
The problem is that there is no sub-text. Sleep Dealer’s messages — the degradation of human contact in the digital age, the heightened opportunities for exploitation allowed by technology — are worn right on Rivera’s sleeve, and if that’s not enough to drive the point home, well then by god Rivera will wind up and punch you in the nose with that arm you’re not looking at. Calling this film heavy-handed is an insult to big, fat mitts everywhere. While a pace that makes a glacier seem like a jackrabbit need not kill a film, when combined with over-the-top alarmism about the perils of technology, the resulting Luddite’s take on The Matrix is hard to sit through, much less take seriously.
— “At last moviegoers can rest easy with Sleep Dealer!” Rex Reed, New York Observer
Rivera clearly has imagination and potential; Sleep Dealer impressed enough people at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to win the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, as well as scoring a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. The film looks much prettier than its $2.5 million budget would suggest, and Rivera’s sense of atmosphere and displacement gives the film a distinctive look and feel. It’s never a good sign, however, when the viewer walks out of a film feeling either resentment over time wasted or a refreshed, just-napped feeling. Agent Smith needn’t fear — no one will heed this warning.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]