Saw the movie last night and have to say the comparisons to Blade Runner were right on. Truth is, it's not fair to this film to write a review after just one viewing, but darn it, the flick is too good to hold back on. Here's my top 10 list of "Tomorrows" that Sleep Dealer serves up. Mucho spoilers follow.
1. Subjugation. The opening scene shows workers plugged into the network, moving like marionettes, dancing to the tune of global demand for crop pickers and construction workers. It's a shame-flavored milkshake and the swirl of " cool idea" that makes you feel even guiltier after swallowing it.
2. Dystopia Now. The first part of the movie takes place in a small town in Mexico, far from the tech wonderland. Water supplies are under lock and key. Life is hard. There's heartbreaking poverty. It looks like many third world towns today, and that's the message. The dystopia is here now. It's one thing to know academically that visions of tomorrow are often used to point out the flaws of today, but in this director's hands, it's a sucker punch.
3. Social networks as "Big Brother." There's a "Memory Market" where people can sell their experiences. We saw this idea in Strange Days, but Sleep Dealer brings a whole new level of creepiness to the issue. In an era of social media, Sleep Dealer shows how easily "Big Brother" can switch from meaning the government to, well, everyone.
4. Plugging in means losing yourself. The process of inserting the node plugs into the body (which look a lot like what we saw in the Matrix) is violent, invasive and dehumanizing. Metaphorically, it speaks to the degradation that people will suffer to support their families or be a part of something larger. Paraphrasing here a bit, Memo (the main character) says after his surgery, "at last, I'm plugged into the global economy." At the beginning of the movie, each plug is a symbol for a lost piece of humanity. By the end, we're reminded that it's now what you're made of, but what you do that makes you human.
5. “It’s people! Soylent Green is made of people!” A white pipeline is shown snaking through the wilderness in several scenes. At first I thought it was an oil or water pipeline. Then I realized it’s holding fiber optic cables. So it’s not so much data coursing through the wire, but the physical work of the sleep dealers as their actions are transmitted to robots across the border. Often times today, human labor is categorized as a natural resource. Here that metaphor materializes. Labor is broken down into bits and bytes, normalized, commoditized and extruded into whatever form the market requires. I'd call it beautiful and ghastly. Luz (Memo’s girlfriend) would just say I’m “old fashioned.”
6. Fear that we won't know what we've lost. On the "old fashioned" thing for a second, this film, like many dystopias, generates a feeling of dread because as bad as things are, it's somehow worse because the future generation on the screen doesn't KNOW how bad it is. They've grown inured. And that ranks up there with the “unknown” for things so scary we usually don’t think about them consciously. (See earlier post on why we WANT to call this the Great Depression.)
7. Redefining "Writer" & "Reader." In this vision of the future, the woman sells her memories online, complete with narration. She calls herself a "writer." And when she makes contact with the man who purchased her memory, she refers to him as a "reader." It’s an interesting prediction on the future of these terms. Remember when we referred to phones as "cellular telephones?"
8. The Campfire: The happiest points in the movie come when Memo sits around a fire with a couple old codgers in a shantytown. They talk of ageless issues—relationships—and it’s the only point at which life in this world feels real, legitimate, worth it. This image’s ancient roots are no accident.
9. Superior technology doesn't equal moral superiority: Recalling that Germany was technologically ahead of most countries in the 1930s, the movie reminds us that as much as technology can instantly connect us to other people or reduce the physical pain of work, it can't make us more moral. This is a critical point. Most techno utopias are built on the premise that "if only we could talk with each other" or "if only we didn't have to labor so hard" then crime and wars would go away. Hundreds of years ago when canals and hot air balloons promised to connect Europe, the intellectuals of the day believed that connection and communication would eliminate the causes of war. Sleep Dealer reminds us that this STILL won't be true in the future.
10. "A future with a past if I connect and fight:" At the end of the movie, Memo utters this phrase. It captures Tom Friedman's argument that only by holding onto our olive trees will we be satisfied with our Lexus. That being engaged is critical for peace. And finally, fights for the moral good must be undertaken.