As one of the first Mexican science fiction films (to my knowledge) ever to be released north of the border, Sleep Dealer is more than good enough to share company with its English-speaking contemporaries. Updating, adapting and, best of all, translating concepts long since established by more recognizable storytellers and filmmakers, first-time writer-director Alex Rivera crafts a smart, lean and engaging science fiction opus that proves you only need a little money if you have a lot of ideas.
In Sleep Dealer, Luis Fernando Pena plays Memo, a young adult who dutifully helps his father gather crops on their modest farm in the not-too-distant future even though a big, exciting world seems to lurk just beyond it. When his father is accidentally killed by a military drone that hunts down potential criminals and terrorists as part of a popular, America's Most Wanted-style television series, Memo sets off for Tijuana to make money to help out his grieving family, and he soon meets a writer named Luz (Leonor Varela) who downloads and sells her memories, including those of him. Before long, the pair strike up a tenuous relationship, only to discover that their interest in one another may have disastrous consequences when the drone pilot (Jacob Vargas) comes looking for Memo for his own mysterious reasons.
There's no denying that a whole lot of other movies come to mind when you first hear a description of Sleep Dealer, including Strange Days, Total Recall and even The Matrix, all of which provide inspiration for at least parts of Rivera's film. But what's most surprising is that it never merely apes those concepts but builds upon them and recontextualizes them in a setting that gives them new and added meaning. While it certainly would be enough to create a world where people jack in to a system that allows them to control machinery across the globe, Rivera not only sets these ideas in a heretofore unexplored, literally geographic location but provides a political and social subtext where notions of assembling day laborers or exporting a workforce take on new relevance.
Cinematically, Sleep Dealer is economical in its artistic choices, but it manages never to look cheap, which qualifies as no mean feat given the film's wealth of computer-generated images. Additionally, Rivera manages to touch upon but never belabor familiar storytelling conventions, instead focusing his lofty concepts into sharp-edged storytelling devices that cut straight to deeper emotional truths. Further, while Pena perfectly captures the quiet insulation of a small-town boy overwhelmed by the self-same "big city" life that he always dreamed about, Varela effectively downplays her smoldering beauty and provides a smart and sensible companion for Memo as he discovers the truth about the world around him.
Ultimately, Sleep Dealer is a terrific movie, and especially effective counterprogramming for its bigger-budget brethren, most of whom borrow from or recycle the same ideas that it does, except with more money and less imagination. "Little" science fiction films usually suffer from the cinematic equivalent of a Napoleon complex—they try to seem bigger than they are, which makes them seem even smaller. With his very first film, Rivera creates the perfect scale for his story and then manufactures a tale that's weighty without sacrificing intimacy—which is why Sleep Dealer seems small but proves to be a big deal indeed.