"This is the American dream," one character says in Sleep Dealer. "We give the United States what they've always wanted... all the work, without the workers."
Alex Rivera's independent science-fiction film Sleep Dealer takes place in Tijuana, in a near future where a wall divides the US and Mexico, where water is kept behind locked gates, and where Mexicans who want to work in the US must first find a "coyotek" to implant them with "nodes"—USB-like ports that are set into their arms and backs, allowing them to jack into a network and control machinery in the US, all while staying on their side of the border.
As you might've gathered, Sleep Dealer makes no bones about what it's really about. It's a film bursting with ideas, style, and plenty of not-particularly-subtle allegory, and despite some occasional clumsiness and a few decidedly cheap special effects, it never stops being creepily intriguing and impressively original.
Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) comes from a small town in Oaxaca, where he lives with his family in the shadow of a massive dam. Forced to pay to access water they once got for free, Memo's family ekes a living out of the arid soil—but Memo wants more. Eventually, he heads north to Tijuana, where he meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a writer who helps him get nodes, allowing him to find work as a construction worker—controlling a robot which, alongside countless others, works to build a gleaming American skyscraper. But unknown to Memo, Luz has also begun to chronicle his story, posting her memories and impressions of him online, where anyone can pay to experience them.
There are moments of goofiness throughout Sleep Dealer, just as there are moments when Rivera's touch—which serves him well when it's lighter—gets too heavy-handed. But overall, the visually striking, impressively imagined Sleep Dealer has an energy, purpose, and relevance that much film—and much modern science fiction—lacks. Sleep Dealer's world isn't a glittery CG novelty, or a fantastic bit of escapism—it's ours, a few years from now, and it's a place where things aren't as different as they should be.