Isa: The quietly subversive sci fi movie you probably didn’t see, but should
Science fictional teen-centered dystopias are all the rage. From the Hunger Games trilogy to Divergent to the Maze Runner, books and movie franchises of variable quality but of unvarying outlook have made big bucks. Technologically adept, smart and with an innate human decency their elders seem to have lost, the young protagonists confront the bleak futures adults have created for them with righteous rebellion.
It is no surprise that these fictional dystopias have become so popular now: Real-life analogues to these young fictional protagonists have been in evidence globally from the Arab Spring to Occupy; from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution to the youth-led “die-ins” to protest police brutality and impunity in the way U.S. police departments deal with young African American men and women; in every instance of DREAM-Activist and NIYA civil disobedience and in massive demonstrations after the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa.
The youth are leading, in fiction as in real life.
Isa, a TV movie (produced by Fluency and distributed by Telemundo) taps into this youth-fighting-the-adult-dystopia dynamic. And subverts it.
Its main character María Isabel Reyes — “Isa” — is a Los Angeles high school student with an aptitude for logic puzzles and mathematical formulas. She has strange vivid dreams that spill over into her real life and soon prove to be prompted by an implanted chip — part of a (sketchily-drawn) multinational scheme to mine children’s dreams for profit.
In a lot of ways, the sci fi conspiracy thriller plot (from a script written by José Nestor Márquez) is the least of Isa’s charms. The young cast is engaging and refreshingly multiethnic. Jeanette Samano plays Isa with intelligence: she’s got grit and unusual abilities, but she comes off as much more real than Katniss in the Hunger Games or Triss in Divergent. Isa’s best friend, Nataly, is played by the young Afrolatina actor Sabi and the friendship between them is pleasantly, if economically, drawn. Eric Ochoa and Timothy Delaghetto round out Isa’s makeshift posse of peers, and it is often a real pleasure to see them all interact.
The adults in the movie don’t fare any better than adults in other teen-centered dystopias: they’re either corrupt and without scruples, or terribly ineffectual. And, honestly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by their acting or their characterizations — though it was nice touch to make Isa’s aunt (Rebecca Manríquez) visually impaired.
Still, there is something to be said about a U.S. TV-movie that casts Mexican actors as its villains and sidesteps Hollywood’s favorite Latino-villain stereotypes. The head honcho, played by Fernando Allende is more Carlos Slim than “El Chapo” Guzman; Ana Layevska’s character is an immoral but brilliant scientist; and Khotan’s implant-driven henchman looks like he stepped out of the pages of GQ.
There are aspects of Isa that resonate especially with U.S. Latinos. The instant the monarch butterfly made its appearance in the film, for example, I knew the story would touch upon immigration and border crossings. The fact that the implanted children are viewed as work units and mined by corporate interests for what they produce also uncomfortably recalls the bracero program and current discussion about guest workers.
There are echoes of The Matrix in this movie (Isa is, like Neo, the one who can bend the rules of the world ); of the Manchurian Candidate, Nightmare on Elm Street, even Monsters Inc., and somehow it all manages to work. The dream sequences, arguably Márquez’s finest moments, are suspenseful, rife with memorable images (the billboard/portal in middle of the desert — which all are scored with old-school Mexican popular music — and the sequences with the monarchs) and haunted by a machete-wielding dream threat that is not quite what it seems.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie has moments of failure, some of them cringe-worthy, but it consistently subverts expectations (how many movies have you seen with even one, no less two, Latinas with superior STEM skills?) in a gentle and ultimately quite entertaining way.
Isa was originally broadcast by SyFy in June and by Telemundo in September 2014, but is currently available for purchase via iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.