PopMatters Film and TV Editor
hey used to say that one nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. That was sort of a joke before those terrorist bozos whacked us with an electromagnetic pulse from 80 miles up. You always hear people hear yapping about how it was all different before the pulse, the land of milk and honey, blah blah blah blah, with plenty of food and jobs, things actually worked. I was too young to remember, so… Whatever.”
As her description of the state of the planet circa 2019 suggests, the protagonist of Fox’s Dark Angel has attitude to spare. But judging by the $10 million, two-hour premiere of James Cameron’s much-advertised teen-sf-thriller series, the girl is entitled. Living in the post-apocalyptic future, Max Guevera (Jessica Alba) is 19-year-old, genetically engineered warrior-child with a bar code on the back of her neck. She escaped from the company that made her a company named Manticore back in 2009, when she was nine years old (and played by big-eyed, crewcut Geneva Locke). At the time you meet her, the independent-minded, “totally down-ass female” Seattle bicycle courier is looking for the other eleven kids with whom she fled, that long-ago wintry night. In order to lay out all this info and jumpstart your sympathy for Max, the show breaks it down in frequent, icy-blue-lit flashbacks with music pounding and fast-cuts to convey, you know, the pain and the tension.
Pain and tension come up again and again on Dark Angel, not to indicate Max’s strangeness or deviance, but instead, her fairly typical adolescence. Cynical, resentful, and hyper-self-aware, she’s the urban rendition of Buffy the vampire slayer, a bit less focused (there are no ancient rules, missions, or Watchers for “transgenics”) and less worried about parental disapproval or chem exams (she has neither) than paying off the neighborhood crooked cop, so he’ll overlook her squatting in an abandoned building. Max extols her concerns in repeated voice-overs, usually uttered as she’s riding her bike through the city streets (under a hiphop-beating soundtrack) or gazing from a rooftop over a city that looks spooky and dark. As the wind gently blows her hair, she looks, well, angelic. It’s at one of these moments that Max observes, so bitterly, “Hopes are for losers,” then waits a beat before adding, so poignantly, that she has some, namely, that some of her fellow transgenics technically, “chimeras” are alive somewhere.
No surprise that this gorgeous, Benetton-beigey Maxim cover girl has a tender heart and deep passion. Like all the hard girls in Cameron’s universe, Max has a drive to survive born of terrible loss. She’s also teen-TV-genic, too young to be Linda-Hamilton sinewy and always done up in perfectly applied lipstick and carefully tousled hair. Where Ripley and Sarah Conner were very motivated moms/mom-figures, Max is still a kid. She’s a pre-fab Sarah Connerette, a gene-spliced cross of soldier-kids Sarah’s John and Ripley’s Newt, by way of Aliens’ bug-hunting Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), Point Break‘s ferocious Tyler (Lori Petty), and Strange Days’ world-saving Mace (Angela Bassett) these last two being films Cameron wrote with director Kathryn Bigelow. Of course, Max has many other obvious precursors (Cameron is, as ever, a superb scavenger, of his own and other materials): Buffy Summers, Jaime Sommers, Mad Max, the hero (named Hiro) who delivers pizzas in Neal Stephenson’s amazing novel Snowcrash, the Fugitive (pick your incarnation), Max Headroom, M.A.N.T.I.S. (from the short-lived, ambitious 1994 TV series in which Carl Lumbly was a superhero who’d been paralyzed by a cop’s bullet during the 1992 L.A. uprising), any version of the Femme Nikitas, Cat People, the traumatized-as-a-child Pretender, the teen-aliens in the WB’s Roswell, even a little Ghost Dog. But Mace is especially relevant here, for her particularity in history a single black mother living in a near-future L.A., carrying history on her capable and well-muscled single mom shoulders, and not incidentally instructing poor love-sucked white guy Lenny Nero in the importance of respecting people and distrusting cops, and most crucially, in the significance of hiphop as a means to communicate and even create history.
Max is a stripped-down descendent of Mace, fiercely loyal to her friends but even fiercer about defending her principles. She has a sensitivity to media, respect for communication and agency, not to mention a series theme song by Chuck D. Her beigeyness is relevant here as well: Alba is on record as being Spanish-Mexican-French-Danish, but more to the point, Max Guevera is a non-white-girl starring in a world where the people in power are still overwhelmingly Caucasian (in particular, the primary villain/chimeras-hunter is Lydecker, played by the increasingly nefarious-looking John Savage). And so, by definition, she’s always working a number of tensions at any given moment, evidenced not only in her voice-over reveries, but also, more violently, in her repeated epileptic episodes, where she sweats and contorts and flashbacks to her childhood traumas, for example, training with other crewcut kids still in that icy light as the words “Duty” and “Discipline” flash on screen: after a few of these awful Clockwork-Orangish scenes, you’re inclined to root for Max the resilient underdog.
In addition to this brutal backstory, Max is surrounded by appropriately swarmy and intertwining narrative elements: the pilot drops you pretty much in the middle, but politely expends much energy on 1) explaining stuff like her quick temper, and 2) setting up stuff for later episodes: her array of “quirky” sidekicks a Rasta bike courier; a blond roommate; a black single-mom neighbor, and Sketchy, a Xanderish-looking guy at work who’s cheating on his sweet cookie-baking girlfriend indicates that she’s in for lots of supporting-character-developing plotlines.
It’s also good to see a teen show in a city, no doubt. Max traverses post-pulse Seattle (read: Microsoft = toast) with refreshing confidence, whether she’s biking, riding her sleek black Kawasaki Ninja 350 (like a mini-Arnold, sans shotgun) or scaling buildings and leaping from rooftop to rooftop in order to practice her lucrative avocation, cat-burgling (apparently literally, she has feline genes spliced into her make-up). After demonstrating her deep interest in an expensive cat statuette (“It’s the Egyptian goddess Bast, the goddess who comprehends all goddesses, eye of Ra, protector, avenger, destroyer, giver of life who lives forever”), she explains her interest to a new acquaintance: “I steal things in order to sell them for money it’s called commerce.” And indeed, objects and information are sold and traded easily and quickly in a post-cyberworld, despite the “nuclear airburst” that wiped out all records of all kinds east of the Rockies.” For Max, money is a practical issue, a means to survival only, certainly not to claim identity (local, national, or we-are-the-worldal) or power; though she certainly has her own clear-eyed understanding of the now-fucked-up class system, where rich people spent money redecorating their homes to match their cats and poor people starved (now, there are food riots on the news, suggesting that lots more people are starving, or at least, more people are acting on their outrage). As Max delivers a package to an office in the superslick financial district, she muses, “America really though they had it dialed in, money hangin’ out the butt. But it was all just a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer someplace. So when that bomb went kablooey and turned all those ones and zeroes into plain old zeroes, everyone’s like no way! America’s just another broke ex-super-power looking for a handout and wondering why.” She knows what time it is.
There will be critics who worry about Max’s appeal. Fox already caught flack for running the Dark Angel premiere and pre-empting the 3 October Gore-Bush Debate (the network ran it tape-delayed, at 11pm EST). Still, the numbers suggest it was a sound economic decision: Dark Angel averaged 17.4 million viewers and a huge 8.3 rating/22 share in its target demographic, adults 18-34, and a 8.5/30 with teens. Whether these fabulous stats will continue, depends in part on how Max delivers, as point of youth-identification, as well as ideal youth-product. Already, the show is betraying its tendency to be “regular,” though it may well be setting up standard plot-points in order to undermine them.
Max’s cool distrust and distance are inevitably rocked by a “famous underground para-cyber-journalist” named Eyes Only, aka Logan Cale (Michael Weatherby). Established in the premiere as Max’s combination nemesis/romantic interest, Logan resembles a young Michael Biehn (Hicks in Aliens, Reese in T1), complete with a not-quite-mean but annoying-all-the-same cockiness. Logan’s daily “streaming freedom video” show reports the resistance-type news to the masses, which he ferrets out by urban-guerilla means. In this first episode, he enlists (or rather, coerces) Max to protect an important witness (a woman with a child: how very Cameronian). Max has one bad moment when she melts for a corny line (Logan says hers is “probably the most singularly beautiful face I’ve ever seen”) and another one where she poses as a slinky-red-dressed prostitute in order to complete the job (this sexy-girl undercover business: way tired). Granted, she’s a teenager and she is singularly beautiful. But Max is potentially cooler than such regular plotting allows, a youthful protagonist with something to offer besides crop tops. Logan knows as much: he seduces her for her warrior skills, recognizing her bar code (and the clues to her physical prowess, when she attempts to burgle his high-rise apartment, cold-cocks his beefy security guard, and backflips out the window). Offering to help her find her long-lost “siblings,” and threatening to turn her in to authorities, Logan blackmails Max into working for him. She says she doesn’t want to get involved, and he counters, “By being alive, you’re involved.” And here you have the series’ version of dystopic dating.
With any luck and foresight, though, this emerging romance will take a backseat to Max’s more interesting and immediate dilemmas: who is she? who was that nice lady nurse who saved her back when she was nine years old and shivering in the snow? where are her fellow Chimeras? why did the Manticore folks or more precisely, Cameron and company design her to be vaguely Latina? and what possessed them to make their most out-there-for-network-TV character, speak with such a lame imitation of street slang? “True that,” says Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller) when you first see her. (Someone on the writing staff needs to tap a real kid for dialogue tips.) Still, as a best buddy, Original Cindy is promising: she’s the fellow courier/pool shark/black lesbian/Xena fan/co-con-artist to whom Max can confide her love-life woes and snark, “I feel sorry for guys. They’re prisoners of their genes.”
Lines like that are okay for Max to say, for, even if she wears black leather and boots, rides a bike, and hangs out with a lesbian, she’s manifestly straight (sigh). This is evidenced by her bad guy-history, laid out early in a Melrose Place-ish bar scene, where Max and Original Cindy exchange words with Max’s wanna-come-back ex, who does that thing where he blames her for his cheating with a friend of hers: she’s remote and solitary, she’s preoccupied and single-minded: she’s not a good girlfriend. Yes. As cozy as the show might want you to feel with Max, she’s most compelling and exciting when she’s not doing what you want or expect. “Now he figures that I’m going to go out there and do the right thing, because I owe him,” she says of Logan after he’s revealed he will continue to blackmail her. “Like I even care.” What a way to introduce your protagonist: so insolent and pissed off and righteous. We can only hope that the show hangs onto this unusual respect for Max’s adolescent rage, her inarticulate resistance, her frustration with the way the world is.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dark-angel/