Nothingness in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer

by Reem Al Mousawi

According to Andras B. Kovacs’ Screening Modernism, the concept of nothingness is “a series of everyday situations where man is alone, desperately looking for something solid in a situation where his own identity is called into question.” This nothingness is created when one’s expectation reaches a point of frustration, and it is also the central concept of existentialist philosophy. This is due to the human condition, or rather, the “nonbeing of something” or of something that should be. This concept thus defines the nature of human existence, where feelings of helplessness are faced with the repressive forces of the exterior world. Given the nature of these ideas, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer (2008) is a prominent exemplary form of the concept of nothingness. Set in the near future, it depicts a world where Mexican workers provide the United States with labor while eliminating their physical presence. Therefore, Mexicans do not migrate; rather they are plugged into a computer to operate robots in the United States. The film highlights many issues we struggle with today, technology versus alienation being one of the more prominent themes. This essay will deconstruct and analyze the film following Kovacs’ concept of nothingness to depict the extent to which technology creates alienation through the elimination of the basic experiences of everyday life.

Kovacs states that nothingness is created from the interaction of consciousness and the world. Additionally, through nothingness, people come to define themselves. This is evident from the beginning of the film as one of the main characters, Memo describes his living conditions. Rather than describing the physical properties of his inhabited village, he states that it is “a village dry, isolated and disconnected.” In this description, the viewer enters into Memo’s physical and mental world all at once. He wanders into the emptiness in silence, a notion that well describes his state of consciousness. In this particular scene, the director sets up the notion of alienation as the imagery presents vast and wide spaces of empty and deserted land. The viewer begins to understand Memo’s personality through his stream of consciousness. Although he is a man of few words, it does not take long for the viewer to decode his persona. This young man is detached from his personal and physical surroundings, even when his family surrounds him. As the family dines together, Memo’s lack of mental presence overshadows his physical presence. The only time the viewer feels his presence is when he picks up signals on his radio that transport him to faraway places. They connect him to the outside world, to vibrant and lively cities where people are living a fast-paced life, something he has never experienced. However, as he listens in on the hustle and bustle, this electronic connection makes him feel all the more disconnected.Furthermore, as the viewer watches Memo work in the fields of the empty village, the feeling of nonbeing is furthermore explicated. Through his work, a lack of purpose and fulfillment is captured. Moreover, this notion is shown in several different sequences in the film. First, the viewer witnesses the technological and corporate takeover that has ensued, which has completely blocked the Mexican-American border. This technology has eliminated much of the everyday human interaction the residents of village experience. They are only able to speak through machines in order to obtain goods and services. This also highlights the barrier that technology has created, which has severely decreased and burdened human communication. The director translates this idea further by showing that much of the communication is between people and computer-programmed machines that do not require any human control. This emphasizes the feeling of disconnection between Memo and his environment. As events transpire, Memo’s father is killed in his home by a robot controlled by a pilot in the United States. This is due to Memo’s signal capturing radio that was deemed as a threat. Memo leaves the village in hopes of finding work outside town, and he encounters a woman who introduces him to the ‘Sleep Dealers’ factories. This woman, Luz, faces her own form of disconnection in a rather bizarre way that will be discussed shortly. Memo begins working for the sleep dealers as a construction worker in San Diego. Visually, he is able to experience a life he had never known to be possible. His previous feelings of needing to escape the village have been somewhat alleviated, yet he is always brought back to reality once he is unplugged from the labor harboring machines. This creates further confusion for Memo as he seems to be living two separate lives while inhabiting one body. He questions his identity more so than when he was living in the village. This technology has forced him to call into question the meaning of his existence. The only way he feels a sense of purpose is by sending his family the money he earns. However, it is not gratifying as he witnesses their living conditions in the hot and dry village as they are lacking water. This is due to the indestructible dam that was built to secure the border between the two countries. Here, the viewer is able to empathize with Memo’s feelings of being lost and isolated as he is stuck in a world that seemingly prioritizes technology over humanity. What furthermore exacerbates these feelings is the lack of control Memo has over the way he lives his life, his surroundings, and his means of survival. There is no room for change, and everything is beyond his control.

The ‘Sleep Dealer’ factories give insight into a world where corporations have taken over the complete human living conditions through the use of technology. In the film, this is depicted in several ways. As the process of working has been previously examined, we now turn to the experience of memories and interpersonal relationships. Luz, one of the main characters in the film is involved in the memory market. She transfers her memories to a program where they can be viewed and even purchase. This technological breakthrough in the futuristic society portrayed by Rivera highlights the breaking point of communication, forming relationships, and sharing experiences. Luz transfers her memory of her meeting and interaction with Memo (photo above), and at one point the program requests that she states the truth about the experience as it can detect a lie. This is significant as later on while we enter her stream of consciousness, she reveals that she is able to tell the program the truth about her feelings towards Memo, yet she is unable to share her true feeling with him. This highlights the barrier that is created between people in terms of personal relationships. As Luz shares her memories, a feeling of alienation is created because she is not capable of expressing her true self in real life, rather only through technological means. She states that people can see what you see, therefore instead of communicating; you transfer a series of images and lines that depict your emotions. She faces a problem similar to Memo’s, which is the rarity in feeling connected. This inability challenges the formation of one’s identity as it becomes difficult to define oneself when one cannot identify with their self, environment, or lifestyle.In his need to escape, Memo now lives a new life yet he is as lost as he previously was. The only difference in his current state is that he is more aware of the reasons behind these feelings. His work has allowed him to witness the downfall of society up-close as he is now an avid participant in the technological barrier that has been created by humans. In the village, he used his radio to escape and live as if he were somewhere else, yet now he is closer to the source of his agony. Luz described Memo as someone who is lost, clinging on to what he left behind. His new life did not help his situation as he has experienced two lives, yet neither experience has filled the void of finding his place in the world.  Rivera emphasizes these notions in revealing that the state of the current world promotes feelings of alienation regardless of a person’s location. Whether it is a small town, village, or a city, the impact of technology in displacing human necessities such as communication and everyday experiences can be felt the world over.Rivera allows the viewer to delve into the characters’ psyches prominently through their stream of consciousness. In this form of narration, Kovacs’ concept of nothingness is truly illustrated. Sleep Dealer is deeply philosophical as it depicts the central concept of existentialist philosophy. The central characters each portray their own method of finding their place in the world. Through that method, they attempt to find the purpose of their existence. While this is a feeling that is universal in nature and transcends from generation to generation, and civilization to civilization, it is the element of technology that truly exacerbates this concept. Technology has greatly impacted and influenced the way of life, making it harder for one to find their place in the world when much of the communication and interaction is eliminated. It is only logical that we define ourselves through our experiences with our fellow people, therefore when those experiences are marginalized; it makes it all the more difficult. This is one of the main reasons this film truly captivates the senses. It allows the viewer to enter a world that could very well exist in the near future, and without the dramatic use of special effects, we witness the possibility of our very own alienated future. Drawing on Kovacs, it is the interaction of consciousness and the world that shapes and defines our being. Therefore, living in a world where this interaction becomes so minute and impersonal, we should be fearful of finding our place and purpose.Drawing on Kovacs’ concept of nothingness, this essay has analyzed the film Sleep Dealer, directed by Alex Rivera to expose the relationship between technology and alienation and their effect on one’s identity. To that effect, it can be concluded that the film exhibits central philosophical concepts pertaining to existentialism. The film was successful in highlighting a futuristic society where technology is the main form of work and communication, therefore creating barriers that lead to feelings of displacement and alienation. Two of the film’s main characters, Memo and Luz, have been deeply analyzed to show their different ways of dealing with the harsh conditions of this impersonal world. In analyzing these characters, Kovacs’ explicated, predominantly through their streams of consciousness. It is a key factor in their evaluation since much of their thoughts are not exposed to their peers and colleagues. Hence, this process was crucial to understanding the motives behind the director’s intentions. His portrayal of the near future, a society well on its way to existence, provides the viewer with insight into his or her place in the world. Additionally, it examines the basic necessities for humans in the face of fast-paced technological advances and the way they influence the very core of our being.