SCI-FI FILMS AREN’T ALL ABOUT WHITE HEROES obsessed with an all-powerful conquest to stamp out invading forces threatening the glory of Western civilization. Independent, first-time feature filmmakers Alex Rivera, a New York–based, second-generation Peruvian immigrant, and Jennifer Phang, a Malaysian and Chinese American, have infused their new sci-fi films with insightful political critique. Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and Phang’s Half-Life, which both had successful world premieres at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, offer fresh coming-of-age stories featuring surprisingly uncommon heroes—an amateur hacking migrant worker and a working-class Hapa tween. Although they are set in futuristic, near-apocalyptic worlds with uncontrollable technological advances, obscene economic exploitation and environmental disasters run amok (eerily reminiscent of the current global climate), these two films don’t leave us hopeless. Instead, they provoke us to externalize personal power to reclaim what has been used against us: the revolutionary possibilities of technology and imagination. And they are due for more attention: Sleep Dealer is expected in theaters later this fall, and Half-Life won the Grand Jury award at New York’s Gen Art Film Festival.
Sleep Dealer seduces us with vivid colors and glossy special effects into a thrilling futuristic world packed with high-tech wonders that are at once familiar, petrifying and full of possibility. At its heart is Memo Cruz, a young amateur hacker who craves virtual escape from his water-starved small village home of Santa Ana del Rio, Mexico. It’s all entertainment until his radio signals get tapped by an American-based reality TV show hunting for “aqua-terrorists,” revolutionaries who struggle against the pervasive privatization of water. Forced from his home, Memo heads to Tijuana to work in a factory where people use their “nodes”—implants in their nervous system—to plug themselves into a global network of virtually-operated robots in the United States that do the jobs immigrants once did (from construction to childcare to sex work). “This is the American Dream,” the factory foreman explains to Memo. “We give the United States what it’s always wanted: all the work without the workers.”
Memo finds the possibilities of node technology to remotely travel around the world to be exciting until he realizes the human cost of a capitalist economy sustained by the same technology.
Across the border in the sluggish suburbia of California’s Diablo Valley, Half-Life offers another future through the eyes of doodling second grader Timothy Wu and his moody 19-year-old sister, Pam. The sun has reached its half-life, a scientific term for the time it takes for “one unstable element to decay and transform into another,” and irrepressible solar flares blaze around the world. Playfully blending poetic reflection and teen/tween angst, Half-Life explores the emotional entanglements of everyday lives on the brink of transition. The kids’ increasingly temperamental mother, Saura, needs love so desperately after their father abandons them that she drowns herself in the distraction of her young, white, jock boyfriend, Wendell, whose dysfunctional presence is breaking the Wu family further apart. Increasingly stifled by a daily spiral of heartbreak amplified by a relentless soundscape of devastating news reports, Tim is inspired by the chaos theory’s proposition that any little thing can alter the course of reality.
Unlike the heroes of traditional sci-fi films that have an identifiable “bad guy” who must be extinguished in order to save both the day and Western civilization, Memo Cruz and Timothy Wu are trying to negotiate the broader workings of a destructive system. Director Alex Rivera asserts that there is no single evil in Sleep Dealer that can be obliterated, because the enemy is the “economic system of the so-called free market that surrounds the characters…manifesting itself in the privatization of water” among much more. These high-tech factories are called “sleep dealers” because after too many hours of being “plugged in” and having one’s life force channeled across the border, the node-workers can no longer keep their eyes open to see the real world they live in.
When Memo personally experiences what technology had otherwise hidden—the human cost of extracting Mexican labor to sustain the U.S. economy—he sets out to use node technology in a radically different way that disrupts the market.
The battleground of Half-Life is American complacency in the face of a disaster-wrought world, as exemplified by one character’s assertion: “We still rage, kill, starve. There’s only so much that you can do. At a certain point, the futility begins to eat into you. At a certain point, you have to abandon control.”
Suffocated by this attitude, Tim decides to use the power of his own determination to push the limits of the possible. Disregarding the rules of linear time and static space, he willfully moves back and forth across the Diablo Valley landscape, flits between past and future times, and pulses in and out of this life and the animated scenes of his imagination.
Once Tim realizes that the status quo is preserved by overlooking our internal ability to change our own environment, he fights to sustain not only his power, but also his sister’s and mother’s. In a moment of tween bravado, he confronts Wendell by telling him to “stop wasting our power,” referring both to the refrigerator door Wendell holds open and to Wendell’s messy interactions with Pam and Saura.
Considering the broad, troubled landscapes Rivera and Phang present, you would hope they offered some unequivocal solution for the world’s problems, as most sci-fi blockbusters imperatively do: “technology is evil,” or “imagination is the answer.” But Rivera asserts that Sleep Dealer is far from a “technology-sucks” film because it engages with the conflicting ways technology is used as a tool. “Technology can hide reality and alienate us, but it can also connect and make visible things [that are] supposed to be hidden in the global world order,” he says. Memo ultimately pairs technological advances with the power of physical one-to-one interactions to launch a thrilling revolutionary act that makes him an instant outlaw.
Phang explains that imagination is likewise a tool that can be used for or against a people. “When people make billions of dollars exploiting a whole country,” she says, “it’s because they’re using their imagination to build their own empire.” But the power an oppressive system wields through technology and imagination is only a testament to the potential of technology and imagination that lies dormant within us. Rivera and Phang emphasize the powerful force of externalizing the internal through technology or imagination. Memo uses personal, emotional ties to expose the exploitative nature of extracting labor in Sleep Dealer, while Tim externalizes the inner world of his imagination to create full-fledged alternate worlds that cross over into reality in Half-Life.
Making their inner visions potent in the outer world with a tenacious determination, Memo and Tim derail the course of the status quo by creating a new home for themselves within a third, unexplored direction: the future that can be possible if only we fight for it.
Memo neither goes back to Santa del Rio with a nostalgic appreciation of the old way of small-town village life, nor continues in the machine of Tijuana’s exploding market advances. Rivera explains that contrary to traditional sci-fi movies where the hero leaves home and never looks back, Memo is “always looking back to see home in another way.” Similarly, Tim conjures a third space where his imagination and reality collide, in which he can protect his family’s power, bringing Pam’s provocation at the beginning of the film to fruition: “If I pay close attention, I can feel outer space pulling at us. One way to fight the pull of the vacuum is to create your own.” Instead of surrendering to a future by default, Sleep Dealer and Half-Life provoke us to negotiate a new way of living and making a home in times of global chaos.
For trailers and more information on release dates and distribution, see www.sleepdealer.com and www.halflifemovie.com.
Roya Rastegar is a doctoral candidate at the History of Consciousness program, University of California at Santa Cruz.