When we were approached with the possibility of reviewing ISA, a movie collaboration between the Syfy, Chiller TV, and Telemundo, we jumped at the possibility. A cyberpunk movie set in Los Angeles’ most Hispanic neighborhoods with a super-intelligent Latina lead? Absolutely up our alley. But while ISA successfully and effectively brings many themes and issues to the table that much of science fiction is sorely lacking, it ultimately falls down when it comes to making much sense.
But first, a little spoiler-light synopsis. Maria Isabel “Isa” Reyes is a Mexican-American high school student living with her aunt and uncle, who have been raising her ever since her parents were killed in a car crash when she was four. Otherwise, she’s got everything going for her: she’s acing all her classes, enrolling in advanced prep courses, a whiz with coding and wiring technology, and popular with her friends. Until she’s hit by a car while jogging, and starts having incredibly vivid dreams that begin to manifest in reality. Somehow, Isa’s brain activity is connected to a shadowy corporate organization that uses the nightmares of captured Mexican children to gain an edge in high speed stock trades, and she’ll either be the subject who makes them millions, or who shuts them down for good.
As is not always the case with dream-sequence-heavy movies, I found ISA‘s to have just the right mix of surreal creativity and calm mundanity. I itched to replay a Myst game as Isa solved each surreal dreamscape puzzle that lead her closer to unlocking the bad guys’ secrets. The film plays expertly with the theme of migration and duality (the repeated cocoon motif, for example, taps into a whole list of possible meanings) without ever beating the viewer over the head with its ideas. “THESE MIGRATORY BUTTERFLIES REPRESENT THE US’ COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS” it does not shout. Thought it does murmur “rich white folks literally making fortunes off the never-to-be-realized dreams of brown, foreign children” softly and insistently. I’ve got no complaints about that. Isa herself is the embodiment of the immigrant dream; the dedicated, educated upwardly mobile child who will have a better life than those who raised her; a scifi hero whose surrogate parents want to make sure she finishes her education before she goes off on any reality-warping adventures.
And speaking of Isa’s family and friend network, not only is the movie filled with Latino actors in the vast majority of its major roles (no surprise, given its production history and setting), the movie also hosts a number of prominent female characters who interact and react to each other, with Isa, her best friend Nataly, her aunt, and the movie’s most prominent villain. In addition to all that lovely race and gender representation, the key to one of Isa’s dream puzzles is her knowledge of Braille, learned from living closely with her aunt’s disability.
So there’s a lot to like about ISA, I just wish it hadn’t been sorta slow and ultimately not particularly cohesive as a narrative. The villains all but sit back and wait for Isa as her dreams lead her closer and closer to the truth (the ultimate “twist” discovery at the end was predictable in hindsight, but it resonated emotionally with me anyway), only taking direct action against her goals in the last third of the film. I’m a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, so I’m fully willing to take a little “computers are magic” in order to get to my meditation on the nature of perception and capitalism. And ISA is a familiar, fun cyberpunk narrative straight out of the ’90s or ’00s: character develops uncanny tech-related ability that warps reality (or virtual reality) around them, eventually grows to the point where they can Hack the Matrix, and destroys immediate foes with end of movie promises of taking down overarching baddies, complete with those baddies staring at their computer screens in shock and horror. I am genuinely willing to accept that Isa’s mutated brain chip would allow her to hack the bad guy’s system from inside her own dreams, but I really would have appreciated some kind of made up science reason for how it can create real objects, up to and including swarms of butterflies. The viewer is also expected to accept “the nightmares of children = faster stock trading” without even the technobabble-iest of explanations.
Folks who don’t get to see themselves in media often enough will put up with a lot before they’ll really frown on a work that gets that representation right, and I am no exception. But, for me at least, the cons outweighed the representational pros with ISA.