Give Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera’s indie sci-fi parable, the credit it deserves. A limited budget appears to have been spent on fleshing out serious ideas, not shiny suits. Subcutaneous “nodes” (yuck) allow impoverished Mexicans to port into a different reality—the kind that works them to the bone operating robots in remote high-tech factories. One such exploited soul is Memo (Pea), who begins the film as an amateur hacker working in a scrub-surrounded shed, then sees his home bombed by drone attack planes (and memorialized on the Cops-like TV hit Drones). Soon, he meets a femme fatale (Varela) on the way to Tijuana, who takes him to the next level.
It’s all chewy stuff, and the occasional flash of humor (a militarily guarded water supply that sucks up $20 bills at the access point) is redemptive. But when your lead actor makes The Matrix’s Keanu Reeves seem animated, certain synapses aren’t firing. Economics are, indeed, the proper purview of science fiction, from Metropolis’s class-stratified cities on. But gripey dystopian concepts do not a complete movie make. Rivera’s film won the same award at Sundance that Shane Carruth’s heady Primer did in 2004—a cash prize that honors technological concepts. Hopefully, both directors will use the money to take some drama courses.—Joshua Rothkopf
Opens Fri. .