“Isa” is a new made-for-TV science-fiction film, unusual for its bilingual dialogue, Hispanic milieu and the manner of its release: It will severally air over Syfy (tonight at 11:30 p.m.), Chiller (Tuesday, June 17), mun2 (Friday, June 27) and Telemundo (later in the summer, on a date yet to be determined); all these outlets, along with your first-born child, belong to NBCUniversal, the Optimus Prime of media companies. (As of Friday it will also be available on various mobile, digital and VOD platforms.)
It is perhaps no accident, then, that writer-director Jose Nestor Marquez also bears the title vice president of digital video production & development, Telemundo Media (and was formerly at mun2), and that this is the first original movie from Fluency Productions, an arm of NBCUniversal Hispanic Enterprises and Content. But if on one level “Isa” is an industrial product, crafted to advance a brand, it is much more than that -- better than it has to be, and richer and more tonally interesting than the sort of original movies Syfy or Chiller usually pushes your way.
Isa (Jeanette Samano) is a brainy high school student, a math whiz who mods memory chips for spare cash and is looking forward to a summer studying computer modeling and theoretical biology; in the usual way, she has a less studious best friend, Nataly (played by Sabi) and a couple of knuckleheaded guy pals (Timothy DeLaGhetto plays one) and a flowering flirtation with a school security guard (Eric Ochoa), recently a student there himself. She lives with her aunt and uncle and leads what she assumes is a normal life, until it isn’t.
The script, which involves (not to be too specific) hijacked dream power, is in many respects familiar stuff, incorporating bits of “The Matrix,” “Coma,” “Inception” and “Fringe,” and the dialogue does not take you anywhere but where you need to go. Yet “Isa” has much to recommend it: its Highland Park setting and ethnic cast; its dreamy rhythms and creamy images; the way it merges the everyday into the uncanny; and the clever things it does with relatively modest means.
I say, “relatively” -- there is a Samsung tie-in, this is not “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.” Nevertheless, “Isa” does a lot with a little, using sound and light and a few animated butterflies to create scenes of creepiness and wonder, and substituting “customized” junkyard tech for the tempting flashy doodads a big budget can buy. And there is evident pleasure taken by Marquez and his director of photography, Anne Ethridge, in the L.A. light, the look of the hills, the pastel mosaic of the neighborhood walls.
If there is no “scientific” sense to any of it -- not usually an issue in these things, anyway - there is a good deal of poetry, and some subtextual resonance germane to the characters: about crossing borders, navigating different worlds; whether or not it was intended, it can handle the migration metaphors. The bigger question, really, starting out, is whether the film will merely walk in the steps of a thousand similar films before it, consigning its characters to their expected, probably bloody fates, or will strike off on its own into some new unimagined territory. I will not answer that question, since it creates a tension of its own.