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Dark Angel

Director: James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee
Creator: Charles H. Eglee
Cast: Jessica Alba, Michael Weatherby, Valarie Rae Miller, John Savage, Kevin Durand, Jensen Ackles, Martin Cummins, J.C. MacKenzie
Regular airtime: Fridays 8pm EST

(Fox)

Review [31.Dec.1994]

My strange little life

Check out Jessica Alba’s new look, so mean and so lean. The ads for Dark Angel‘s new season highlight a change in her character, Max Guevera. No longer round-cheeked and wondering just how to handle her superbody, she got a newly taut, sinewy figure, black-catsuited and accented by her longer, straighter locks. All of this is showcased in those 20-second, in-betweener spots: see her ever-ready crouch; her intent look at the camera as she shifts her weight; her stark, no-nothing-else-in-it setting. It’s not quite so severe as the T2 incarnation of Sarah Connor, but, honestly, girlfriend is looking thin.


So much so, apparently, that Alba recently commented publicly on the new look, confessing that maybe she’d taken to the physical regime a little too enthusiastically, that maybe she needed to, you know, lighten up, that maybe the new look isn’t the best one for girls who love Max to emulate. It could be that Alba is only performing that routine where stars acknowledge an “issue,” in order to pre-empt accusations, but I’d like to think that she’s smarter, that she’s reflecting seriously on what she does, acknowledging not only that her fans have noticed the change, but also that she’s considering the way that her actions and appearance might have an effect. Maybe this is a sign that the 20-year-old Alba will turn out okay, despite the massive media attention dumped on her so suddenly last year, when Dark Angel became one of last season’s few straight-up successes, a ratings hit among the coveted “youth” demographic, winner of several “new show” and “breakout star” awards, and fansite fave.


Add to Alba’s rapid professional ascent the fact that she also became engaged last year, to 33-year-old co-star Michael Weatherby, who plays Max’s love interest, Logan, and you have to wonder how she keeps it all together as well as she does, adjusting so decently for sea changes. And to be fair, Logan is also coming to the new season with a changed look, only his is considerably less drastic—bangs (but it’s not so goofy-looking as George Clooney’s Ancient Roman look back when he was trying to spice up ER).


However Alba makes her own adjustments in the future, Max is adjusting all the time in her present time, the post-Pulse 2019 (that is, after all technology was pulsed out in 2009). The ur-post-adolescent-misfit, Max is an X5, a.k.a., a transgenic, a.k.a., feline-genetically-enhanced super-soldier. She’s also a fugitive, having run off from Manticore, a super-soldier-making facility in Gillette, Wyoming that produced her and her fellow X5s, all marked with trackable barcodes on the backs of their necks. And so, though she looks like a chic tough chick (see also, Lara Croft tomb raiding, Buffy beating down vampires), Max has her own not-so -standard shit to deal with. Again and still, she’s tracking down the other X5s who escaped with her (the series is all about the derangements of family, in its way). But now she’s also thinking about other generations, and oh yes, being designed with a built-in drug addiction (to tryptophan, which stabilizes her brain’s jumpy serotonin levels), and trying to make sense of all her super-soldier skills (telescopic and night vision, catlike dexterity and reflexes, etc.), while also maintaining friendships with her human friends, say, Logan, a journalist with all kinds of connections so he can help her track down her siblings; and Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller), bestest-ever roommate and got-your-back coworker at Jam Pony X-Press, a Seattle bike courier company.


To some viewers, Max is a sexy, buff, Britneyesque babe, but to me, she’s more complicated. (Actually, to me, the Britney business is also more complicated, but that’s another article.) Max, in addition to being one of the few non-Caucasian network series leads, is also resilient like you cannot believe. Beaten down by every possible emotional and physical means of assault, she always comes back, and usually, with a lesson learned, or at least a lesson to dispense during her episode round-up moments atop the Seattle Space Needle, looking out on the dark city and wondering just how she’s supposed to cope with all the devastation and meanness around her, as well as the generosity and strength.


In a world as relative as this one (and much like our own), survival depends on an ability to shapeshift emotionally, culturally, and politically, to imagine a reality beyond your body and desires, to cross over, as it were. While Dark Angel has offered some downright corny manifestations of this theme (Max gussies up to crash some rich folks’ party: haven’t we seen this class-busting routine before?), it also has something to say about the process, its significance and stakes. Max’s apparently tireless pursuit of her weird past, while trying to build a future with sensitive-guy wannabe-main squeeze Logan, means that she’s always trying to define herself as part of something, a race, a community, a politics.


The 2001 season opener, “Designate This,” reignited all these issues for her. As you’ll no doubt recall, at the close of last season (“And Jesus Brought a Casserole”), Max was recaptured by the evil soldier-making factory Manticore, the place where she was made and trained, the place she ran from as a child. Though she had been fatally shot by the next-generational version of herself, an X7 (played by that same silent and completely riveting girl who plays Max in flashbacks throughout the series, Geneva Locke), Max is at the last minute salvaged by the Manticore doctors when fellow X5 Zack (William Gregory Lee) shoots himself—rather spectacularly, too—so they can transplant his heart into her damaged chest.


The surprise this season is not that Max has indeed survived (no big whoop: she wasn’t even technically dead, like poor Buffy, who was literally in her grave), but the continuation of her newly formed alliance with the once anathemic Lydecker (John Savage), designer of the X5 series. And so, here he comes in the premiere episode, reading charts, providing technical support, manipulating the system he helped to set up, all in the interest of helping “his kids”—Max and other surviving X5s—to blow up Manticore, after ensuring that all the X-series kids and transhumans can escape. (In an effort to cover up the kids’ existence, the media then blame the destruction on a rebel group called the S1Ws, named for members of series theme songwriter Chuck D’s old group, Public Enemy). The premiere also includes some ironic explaining of Max’s disappearance, in the context of her return to work and the predictable hard time from her boss, Normal (J.C. MacKenzie): “Your name is mud, missy-miss. I’ve heard some lame excuses for missing work, but faking your own death for a three-month sabbatical is a new low.” Missy-miss protests that she didn’t exactly “fake” being dead, only had a heart transplant. Normal demands proof, and is suitably aghast when she shows him the big nasty scar on her chest. Sexy girl body-display, this is not.


Max is good like that, at once vulnerable and robust, intellectual and emotional, earnest and irrational. While she’s concerned to find a cure for a deadly, time-sensitive virus with which Manticore has recently infected her, she’s also looking to find her place. At the end of the new season’s premiere, Max looks out on the city and sighs: “Funny how from up here, it looks like nothing’s changed. Only everything’s changed… The whole time I was at Manticore, all I wanted was my strange little life back. Never figured it could get any stranger.” These days the increasing strangeness consists of her distrustful friendship a local fight-club participant and Manticore product-victim, Alec (Jensen Ackles), whom Max first meets while they’re locked down at Manticore. Put in a cell together, they’re assigned to be breeding partners. Willful child, she wasn’t crazy about that idea, and so now that Max has broken out, he’s been instructed to kill all the X5 renegades, along with several escaped X6s and an X8. All these numbers do mean something, in terms of a series’ capabilities and uses, but at this point, they’re more important as markers of community and generation. The different numbers are going to have to come together to fight the real powers that be.


In the most mundane of scenarios, it could be that Alec and Logan will have a conflict over Max, as they’re the series’ two pretty boys. But if she has to start making soapy romantic choices, I’ll throw my vote to her newest comrade, Joshua (Kevin Durand). The result of an early Manticore experiment with animal DNA, Joshua is a dogboy, with a snout, fur, and doggy mannerisms to mark him as outcast. Unlike Max, whose instinctual, uncontrollable catness only emerges occasionally (when she’s in heat, for example, as she was to the tune of Missy Elliot’s “Hot Boys” last season), Joshua is always dogboy. As such, he has some fixed ideas and needs, but he’s able to switch loyalties, too. He leads Max to the scientist he calls “father,” the generally evil and way-too-appropriately named Ames White (Martin Cummins). Unlike the newly reinvented Lydecker, old-school villain White has no compunctions about destroying his creations, seeing only a large picture that has to do with world domination and no lessons learned from the Pulse. It’s likely that Max and crew will be dealing with this big bad daddy for some time to come this season. That Dark Angel sets this guy against the extremely multi-raced Max and Joshua, exacerbates and refines its earlier politics and cultural critique. I’m not getting carried away: Jim Cameron is not going to be making revolutionary art anytime soon. But Max’s strange little life, so far, remains a welcome respite from my own.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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