Alex Rivera’s 2008 sci-fi semi-allegorical story of U.S. imperialism in Mexico.
Near future scenario: Drones control dams – and the people dependent on them – in rural Oaxaca. A technophile, Memo (dewey-eyed Luis Fernando Peña), inadvertently draws the attention of U.S. monitors with disastrous consequences for is family, and he ends up drifting to Tijuana, a center for installing and connecting “nodes,” ports in human bodies that allow Mexicans to provide cut-rate manual labor in the U.S. without crossing the border by plugging into a system corporeally and doing traditional immigrant work like construction – but in a once-removed capacity, controlling robots through the nodes network, a new means of economic imperialism in the information age.
Leonor Varela plays a character Memo meets in Tijuana who uploads her memories and sells them to private buyers. The commodity of tech voyeurism has jumped from live online sex chats to invasion of the subconscious. The buyer maintains complete anonymity while the seller’s secrets are laid bare for cheap picking, a phenomenon exploited to fullest potential when memories and dreams filter into the sphere of government and corporate monitoring.
Varela’s character also serves as the hinge between Memo’s Oaxacan pastoral past and his immersion in the high-tech present. She can install the nodes – a series of ports – needed to link up to find work. The use of nodes seems as ubiquitous and and unofficial as undocumented workers in the U.S., and in order to get across the border, even in virtual terms, the workers need a coyote, or coyotek. This girlfriend-ish figure, though she becomes a paid informant through her service, proves the safest means to acquire nodes, through a jarring implantation that owes no small debt to David Cronenberg’s ExistenZ and that film’s gaming ports shot into the lower spine in grungy garages and seedy backroom parlors. In both films, the melding of human body with technology is a messy, risky, gritty transition to a new, but not exactly higher, state of consciousness.
Her marketed memories draw together the Oaxacan technophile and the remorseful drone pilot (Jacob Vargas, bland, perhaps purposefully so) who carried out an attack on Memo’s home. This meeting results in a rather predictable, rousing finale, in which the drone pilot redeems himself by rejecting his role as arm of the law/tool of oppression. Rivera makes explicit the blind buy-in of some Latinos into the system with a scene placing the pilot in silent opposition to his parents, who praise him as a patriotic hero, while he begins to view himself as a collaborator or perhaps just a pawn in a system dependent on subjugating poor Mexicans.
The scene with the pilot’s parents, caricatures of gringo-pacified elders living in mindless comfort (contrasting with Memo’s family, oppressed and impoverished, struggling daily just to get water) lacks any subtlety, but I don’t believe subtle is Rivera’s aim. His script leans heavily on the allegory of virtual laborers/undocumented workers, but the allegory isn’t much of a jump. The node plant looks like a factory floor and the workers have no value to the system outside of their clock hours, no contribution to make other than grinding manual work that ends when they lose consciousness. Their repetitive, silent motions in performing their virtual jobs show that technology has not served them, but rather that they serve the technology and the system controlling it. Memo even wires home money just like millions of workers in the U.S. (though he can actually see them receive the bills via a Skype-ish program).
Rivera doesn’t explore very deeply the possibilities offered by Varela’s character, who opens the allegorical door to another form of imperialism, the supply-and-demand dependent relationship between Mexico and the U.S. with drugs. Varela’s memories-for-sale character is the real dealer, after all, and what is she dealing but mental stimuli – doing the grunt work with her own mind to feed the minds and desires of others across the border. There might not be room in this movie for that track, but a television series could take us all the way down to memory junkies and dealer-diluted dreams. It’s the narco-allegory that almost was.
Instead, the focus hones closer to the geo-political effects of technology on power and connectedness, as tech cements existing power while simultaneously disconnecting disparate groups, and in some cases, possibly carving out those disparate groups, as evidenced by the contrast between Memo’s family and the drone pilot’s. In Rivera’s vision, Mexicans still provide cheap labor – but without even coming into contact with U.S. citizens. And the U.S. still maintains its lock on economic predominance through military might – though drones now allow such might to be exercised wholly outside the realm – foreign – of possible conflict.
The movie is not short on ideas. Dale Hudson finds plenty in a U.S. conflagration of government and corporation with White male supremacy embedded in media. The faceless voices from the command consoles ordering the drone strikes stem from a center of power that, in the end, can only be addressed by subverting its own weaponry. Is Rivera calling for revolution, or is he warning us of the path just ahead, with government-sponsored terrorism in North America and similar-scale strikebacks from the oppressed? The allegory is fairly thin, so he may see us teetering between the two.
The science fiction also runs a bit thin. Drones have already surpassed some of what we see here. Moreover, node-connectivity and robots seems slightly behind the curve, even for 2008, as artificial intelligence keeps leaping forward at a staggering, scary rate. If a car can drive itself, a robot harvesting in the fields cannot be far behind.
Rivera has commented on the difficulty of keeping up with technological advances and their concurrent military adoptions, even as he was in the process of writing the script. He now hopes to get enough money to re-release the film with updated/better special effects. I think he’s better off taking the original idea and pitching it to cable. The Latino audience in the U.S. is well past ready, and international appeal for the themes can’t lag far behind in today’s world of globalization and mass immigration. Rivera could make a smarter version of The Walking Dead, without zombies but with more cogent social commentary.
He had better hurry. I think we can already skip the nodes and the humans supplying any last vestige of compensated labor. We’re already on the fast track toward real Cylons, who may one day be reviewing the likes of Sleep Dealer and Battlestar Galactica while ruminating on their origins.
In the meantime, human beings can consider Sleep Dealer while musing on the advancement of technology amidst rapid globalization – and how a history of work immigration and hogging of resources might continue well into a virtual age.