Jan 20, 2008

Park City Dispatch #2 - "Sleep Dealer"

Synthesizing the concerns of the third world with elements of mainstream sci-fi films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and David Cronenberg’s Existrenz and a touch of William Gibson’s futuristic cynicism, Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera’s long awaited directorial debut premiered last night at Sundance to a mostly appreciative audience, although this particular critic was left cold by the film’s lack of urgency and it’s simplistic take on the challenges of globalization. It’s a complex and aesthetically accomplished movie at times, a narrowly focused, clumsily structured and haplessly executed movie at others, but without a well defined antagonist for its cast of attractive Latinos, it’s only baiting the liberal, largely white audiences that make up Sundance screenings and coastal specialty filmgoers. A shame, because Rivera is clearly a gifted conceptualist and his movie has all the elements of a haunting cautionary tale, with a script bursts with contemporary relevance, but falls apart, much like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, because of its lack of thematic cohesion and ideological clarity.

Sometime in the near future, Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), a young man who’s rural Mexican town has been ravaged by the daming of a local river by an American Corporation, builds something resembling a satellite dish which allows him to access the internet like network in which all information is exchanged and a reality TVesque show depicts a remote controlled fighter plane killing terrorists. Live. His father and family, still tied to the land and traditions that have governed them and their ancestors, don’t quite grasp his ambitions, his father, while staring out at the dam which ruined his farm, telling his son that “he doesn’t know who he is”.

It’s only when our identity challenged protagonist recognizes, while watching the show in which the fighter, bent on destroying the “Aqua Terrorists” who threaten various Mexican dams, his father’s nearby home as the target, the roof of which serves as the dish’s home, does Memo realize he’s made a fatal mistake. His father, in just one of many campy, poorly executed CGI sequences in Sleep Dealer, is blown up by the fighter. The man controlling the drone, Rudolph Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a star Mexican-American fighter pilot, senses he’s done something wrong, but of course, won’t be able to rectify he’s “I was just following orders” moment until act three.

Ramirez, like the Mexican workers Memo soon joins to find work to support his family, is connected to a central mainframe by neon blue wire which feed to “nodes” up and down there arms and back, allowing him to flight the plane from a module in Southern California. Memo starts a romance with Luz (gorgeous newcomer Leonor Varela), whom he meets on the bus to Tijuana. She installs nodes in his body, and soon he takes a job, in a room full of “connected” workers, who control drones which construct buildings, babysit children, and clean houses across the US.

For an indie, the film is full of provocative ideas and wonderful futuristic details like this, but it loses its way as it begins to tighten circumstances that bind Rudy and Memo. Rudy is paying Luz, whom he knows online, to deduce Memo’s motivations for coming to Tijuana. Ultimately, after telling the man he killed his father (by far the film’s most dubious, implausible, emotionally underserved sequence), he enlists Memo’s help in his attempt to destroy the dam.

Almost sensual but not quite, Lisa Renzler’s crisp, colorful Super 16mm lensing can’t help but make the poorly executed CGI look even worse. The film is nothing if not anti-American in many of it’s sentiments and perhaps deservedly so, but the narrative’s bait and switch, in which the natural Latin antagonist become the agent of positive, if not quite revolutionary change by picture’s end, is pretty lame. Still, a film as packed with ideas as this one can’t be completely written off.