Born to a Peruvian father and an American mother, digital artist-turned-filmmaker Alex Rivera enjoys the contradictions of his heritage. But while his ethnic background prompted an interest in the Latino experience, it has been merely the spark that has ignited a wider range of issues.

“I want to look at the big dynamics,” he says, “from globalization to border policy to labor politics. In the immigrant story, you have great human stories, but you also have this launching pad to see the future of the world.”

With his sci-fi debut “Sleep Dealer,” screening in Sundance’s dramatic competition, Rivera makes good on his promise and reflects on another fascinating paradox: Call it “The Matrix” meets “El Norte,” the film envisions a future where Mexicans no longer cross the U.S. border looking for work, but plug themselves into Tijuana-based cyber networks to remotely operate worker robots.

Ten years ago, Rivera explored the idea in a satirical mock-doc called “Why Cybraceros?” Expanding upon the short, “Sleep Dealer” fully realizes the concept — all the work, without the workers.

“I use digital imaging not to tell fantasies but to talk about reality,” says Rivera, who never studied visual effects or filmmaking, but political science and media theory at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “I’m kind of an autodidact,” he says, adding that he’s been working with After Effects, 3-D software and “tinkering around with animation” for years. (Much of his work can be seen at alexrivera.com)

With 50 locations, 450 visual effects shots and a 100-person crew (“100 times bigger than any crew I had in the past,” he admits), “Sleep Dealer,” he says, “had to have been written by someone who didn’t know any better.”

“The amount of creativity and problem-solving to get the visuals right was insane,” explains Rivera, who received help with the dazzling, oftentimes hallucinogenic imagery from visual effects supervisor Mark Russell (“Minority Report,” “Hellboy”).

But “Sleep Dealer” producer Anthony Bregman says the results come from Rivera’s remarkable resourcefulness. “It’s like working with MacGyver,” says Bregman, “and what emerges is a totally original and visually stunning brand of filmmaking.”

For now, Rivera doesn’t know what his next project will be. “But I know what I want to do,” he says, “things that are visually striking and thought-provoking.”

INSPIRED BY: “I like the playfulness, the aesthetic and the romp of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and David Cronenberg, and I like the political commitment and the edge of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Gillo Pontecorvo.”
REPS: Agent, Tory Metzger (CAA); attorney, Andrew Hurwitz (Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz)