EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was original published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival
True originality and artistic verve push filmmaker Alex Rivera's future drama "Sleep Dealer," above other films in Sundance's dramatic competition. Comparisons to popular sci-fi fare like "The Matrix" are understandable but "Sleep Dealer" has more in common with the utopian politics of Fritz Lang's silent epic "Metropolis." Rivera is not content to simply dazzle with "Sleep Dealer," although he and his crew have crafted the most beautiful of films. "Sleep Dealer" is a film with lofty dramatic aspirations, an ambitious visual palette and a folksy heart. To their credit, Rivera and co-writer David Riker have come up with something unique and yet engaging; the nervy combination of social politics with future shock storytelling. While "Sleep Dealer" sometimes skips a narrative beat, it's a fantastic journey.
Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando) lives with his family in the rural Mexican town of Santa Ana del Rio. He hates the idea of paying a large corporation high prices for small amounts of drinking water. He also wants to relocate to the mega cities he dreams about in the far corners of the world. One means of escape can be found in the workers who plug into a Tijuana-based computer center in order to remotely operate worker robots in far away factories. These node workers connect via glowing cables into a vast computer network. It's not long before Memo ends up in Tijuana although his journey becomes somewhat revolutionary in spirit.
Futuristic fantasies are well-tread genres but not the way Rivera tells the story. "Sleep Dealer" is humanist science fiction with a political manifesto at its core. Early into the film, an expansion of Rivera's short film "Why Cybraceros," it becomes clear that Rivera studied political science and media theory. While the politics behind Memo's actions may not always be crystal clear, his hope for a better life brings welcome drama to the film's expansive storytelling.
"Sleep Dealer" is a big film - a reported 450 visual effects shots led by visual effects supervisor Mark Russell. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler uses color to full effect and animation and digital effects play a big part in the film but its standout features remain its bare bones effects of old cables and dusty computer equipment. Rivera's background is digital art and his experimental background is evident throughout "Sleep Dealer." He clearly reaches with every scene and while he sometimes fails to keep the story coherent, his artistic bravery is impressive. Rivera also edited the film so whatever "Sleep Dealer" lacks in coherence falls on his artistic shoulders. Yet, thanks to Fernando's likable screen presence, "Sleep Dealer" also retains a homespun charm and an approachable story.
"Sleep Dealer" belongs in the footsteps of Darren Aronofsky and Andrei Tarkovsky, two filmmakers who also successfully combined science fiction and human stories. But the spirit of political novelist Upton Sinclair hovers over the film and that's extraordinary. "Sleep Dealer" is a film with something to say about humanity and its relationship with technology. This sense of humanity, more than its numerous mind-blowing fantasy images is what ultimately sets "Sleep Dealer" apart.