Futuristic science-fiction has been traditionally used as a springboard for exploring social and political events of the present. This is undoubtedly the case in Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer, which uploads the Phillip K. Dick narrative framework into an allegory for the Mexican immigrant journey. Rivera borrows liberally from such classic sci-fi spectacles as Star Wars, Brazil, and The Matrix, but, made for a paltry two million dollars (and with Tijuana standing in for Blade Runner's L.A.), his film is unexpectedly quaint and fragile. It relies primarily on the strength of the director's vision, rather than the bloated pomp that has become a convention of the genre. Rivera's task is a bit like trying to recreate Beethoven's 9th Symphony using a xylophone, a tambourine and a old Casio keyboard; the litmus test for whether you'll enjoy Sleep Dealer lies in whether you find that concept perfectly endearing or just sort of pathetic.
Set in rural Mexico in the near-future, Memo (portrayed by Luis Fernando Peña, whose sleepy-eyed demeanor makes Keanu Reeves seem positively manic by comparison) lives an agrarian existence with big-city dreams. The local water supply is controlled by unseen totalitarian forces, the same invisible foes that eventually deal a major tragedy to Memo's family farm. The incident impels Memo to depart for Tijuana, where he's installed with "nodes," physical circuits that connect humans electronically in a global virtual network. The implants allow Memo to perform construction work in the United States despite remaining in a factory in Tijuana, providing potent metaphors for both the role of Mexican immigrant laborers and the emerging global technocracy.
Rivera invests too much in his ambitious ideas, neglecting the story and its characters (to say nothing of the charmingly shoddy special effects), biting off more than he can chew and concluding with a disappointingly lackluster climax. But Rivera's message is never preachy or ham-fisted, and by opting for an analog, dreamlike visual approach (as opposed to the sleek futurism of, say, Minority Report), the film remains, if never mind-blowing, consistently watchable. The high-concept Sleep Dealer could probably use a little less concept and a few more, well, physical highs, but nonetheless applies a refreshingly thought-provoking, workmanlike lens to a slew of prescient ideas.