Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2009

Reality bytes

The future of virtual reality is in the wrong hands in 'Sleep Dealer'

Sleep Dealer
Maya Entertainment
Director: Alex Rivera
Screenplay: Alex Rivera and David Riker
Starring: Luis Fernando Pena, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas, Giovanna Zacarias, Emilio Guerrero and Jake Koenig
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Virtual reality didn't evolve exactly the way we expected - or the way we were expected to expect, or expected to want, or . . . what did we expect, anyway? I remember when it was the future. It was going to revolutionize the way we played video games, watched movies, entertained ourselves - among other things.

Some said that, at least. As it turns out, we still play games the same way - we buy an overpriced console and hook up two controllers. We still watch movies the same way - sitting down in front of a flat image. And until a specific version of those creepy Japanese robots I keep seeing on the news hits the mainstream, I would assume people will continue to copulate the old-fashioned way, too.

The virtual reality craze - in whatever form it existed (hype and expectation, mostly) - died down. Entertainment as a glorified carnival flight simulator never happened. If anything, V.R. - in a certain form, at least - became more germane to reality, ironically enough. In an era in which manufacturing our virtual selves is our favorite form of both entertainment and communication, we've indulged wholly and enthusiastically into artifice.

What's next? Who knows. Maybe we will get those personalized, themed V.R. modules that Philip K. Dick and George Saunders have told us about. Maybe not. But Alex Rivera offers a couple of possibilities - though in largely inept fashion - in his feature debut, Sleep Dealer.

The conceit is compelling enough; in the near future, people can elect to get nodes implanted into their nervous systems to hook up to a global network. They can buy others' memories or sell their own - the ultimate marriage of virtual reality and voyeurism.

In the case of Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) - a Mexican immigrant whose family was blown up by the military - he signs up to work through the network, literally, hooking in to a mainframe to control robotic machinery that may be thousands of miles away.

On its surface, Sleep Dealer is a commentary on the American immigration debate as well as the future of technology. But in Rivera's hands, those concepts seem more mystifying than thought-provoking. He tries to infuse the film with elements of thriller, romance and media satire, but those attempts almost always fall flat.

Actually, a few of the comic elements are the only inspired ideas in the entire film - maybe it would have worked better without such a somber, self-serious tone. Instead of taking the story in that direction, which seems a more natural fit, he focuses on a terribly banal relationship between Memo and Luz (Leonor Varela), whose intentions with him appear dubious, and the action-thriller elements that Rivera is simply ill-equipped to handle. (One important sequence in particular is of Capricorn One-level absurdity and logical ineptitude.)

Sometimes it's difficult to really attack a film like this - an ambitious project held back to some extent by a lack of necessary means. It would be much easier to blast it if it had a $100 million budget and was just as bad. But incompetence is incompetence - and this film has plenty of it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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