What happens when we exercise our personal power?
Sci-Fi Heroes Take on the System
Given that movies might be the most powerful modern medium for shaping public opinion (the rationale behind our own efforts in posting the novelized screenplay, Perfect Timing), we trim this 2008 movie review from ColorLines, posted at AlterNet on July 9. The reviewer is a doctoral candidate at the History of Consciousness program, University of California at Santa Cruz.
By Roya RastegarIndependent, 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 political choice. 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 uncommon heroes -- an amateur hacking migrant worker and a working-class Hapa tween.
Set in futuristic, near-apocalyptic worlds with technological advances, economic exploitation, and environmental disasters, these two films provoke us to exercise personal power to reclaim 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. Then his radio signals get tapped by a reality TV show hunting for "aqua-terrorists" -- revolutionaries who struggle against the monopolization of water.
Forced from his home, Memo heads to Tijuana to work in a factory where employees plug themselves into a global network and have their life force channeled to 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." These high-tech factories are called "sleep dealers" because after too many hours of being "plugged in", the node-workers can no longer keep their eyes open to see the real world they live in.
Across the border in California's Diablo Valley, Half-Life offers another future through the eyes of 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 solar flares blaze around the world. Playfully blending poetic reflection and teen/tween angst, Half-Life explores the emotional entanglements of lives on the brink of transition. The kids' increasingly temperamental mother, Saura, needs love so desperately after their father abandons them that she abandons herself to a young jock, 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.
Rather than fight an identifiable "bad guy", Memo Cruz and Timothy Wu oppose 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.
In the battleground of Half-Life , Tim uses 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.
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 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."
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. 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.
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