S leep Dealer begins in the near future, in Oaxaca, in a small farming community. The people here are suffering because a global corporation has recently privatized and militarized the region's water. To access the vital commodity, the peasants must now pay in American dollars, walk to the bank of the man-made lake as surveillance cameras armed with Gatling guns watch them, and in fear fill their pouches with precious but very pricy water.
At the center of the story is twentysomething Memo (Luis Fernando Peña). His father is a hardworking and honest farmer, his younger brother is addicted to violent American TV programs, and his mother cooks when times are good and cries when times are bad. Memo is an amateur hacker. He listens to the chatter of the infosphere—the electronic ether that floats and flickers above the surface of the earth. He hears telephone calls, satellite signals, radio transactions. One day he hears something he is not supposed to, and this results in the death of his father, who is mistaken for an "aqua terrorist." Memo leaves Santa Ana del Rio and settles in "the largest border town in the world," Tijuana, and meets a beautiful woman, Luz (Leonor Varela), who sells her memories for a living. Memo undergoes an illegal operation that implants metal nodes in his flesh. These nodes connect him to the virtual network of the global economy. He becomes a "node worker."
The movie is fantastic. Its story is simple, and its soundtrack is a dreamy/dubby Mexican electronica that's very similar to the work and innovations of the Nortec Collective. The cinematography is a rich confusion of colors and images shot on a 16 mm camera. And the special effects look cheap but are effective. The movie, which is directed by Alex Rivera, a New York–based digital-media artist, is a synthesis of several science-fiction films. It begins with Star Wars (a young man whose rural home is destroyed by military forces becomes a rebel in the struggle against the empire). It also has good dose of RoboCop (the privatization of policing), Blade Runner (global corporations that dominate a gloomy urban underworld of illegal operations and sleazy bars), Strange Days (virtual reality and the marketing of memories), and finally, The Matrix (body nodes and cyber insurgency).
But what Sleep Dealer has that The Matrix severely lacked is a realistic idea of labor in the future. In The Matrix, humans are farmed for their energy by the evil machines. All they have to do is sleep and dream that they are living in a big and prosperous post-industrial city. The quality of their dreaming is not weak but is totally convincing. If you eat the illusion of a steak, it tastes just like a real steak. Meaning, it is a steak, and this is a real restaurant, and this is a real city. Because the dream is no different from the real, the rebellion against the machines and their soft exploitation of human bodies does not make much sense. In Sleep Dealer, evil machines are replaced by the evils of neoliberalism.
With the border between the U.S. and Mexico secured, the Mexicans in the world of Sleep Dealer are forced to work in the U.S. without coming into the country. They do this by jacking their bodies into virtual space and ensouling robots that pick fruit, care for children, and build towers across the border. Memo becomes a virtual construction worker. He enters a robot that looks a little like WALL•E and welds on a metal beam that's high above a rich American city. Other robots work with him. These surrounding robots are ensouled by humans from around the world—China, South Africa, the Philippines. Though the work is virtual, it's physically exhausting. The life begins to drain out of young Memo. Science-fiction cinema has never come this close to the actual condition of work in our era of neoliberal capitalism.
The idea of cyber labor first appeared in Rivera's short film Why Cybraceros? (1997): "The Cybracero concept started as a surrealist satire of anti-immigrant politics, and internet utopianism," writes Rivera on his website. "Strangely, it has become reality today in Indian 'call-centers' in which thousands of people work in America over the net, but may never participate in any other way in U.S. society." This is true. Cyber labor has become a reality. But it's also true in another, more immediate sense. Cyber labor is not that different from the living labor of illegal immigrants in America. Undocumented, uninsured, un-unionized, these human beings are treated no better than robots. And so the future in the film reveals the present as it is. This indeed is science fiction at its best.