Cameron's Max is no angel

The Incredible Hulk, Lassie — all tormented ex-Cold-War stormtroopers who chose to side with the little guy.

But in James The Terminator Cameron’s television show Dark Angel, there’s a new addition to their ranks. Don’t be fooled by the name — Max Guevara — because there’s something different about this ruthless vigilante.
As hundreds of bewildered subordinates have no doubt uttered, “But sir, she’s a girl!”

In this blatant rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — sorry, “pioneering new action drama” — the protagonist is one of a batch of skinhead eight-year-olds who escape from one of the early levels of Metal Gear Solid on the Sony Playstation, armed with nothing but unfashionable hospital nighties. Proving how futuristically fiendish they are, the military have tattooed each of the genetically engineered cadets with a supermarket bar code on the back of their necks — operating on the logic that everyone has to go to the shops from time to time, and if one of these super-soldiers sticks their head through the scanner by accident, “Paging store manager! We’ve got one!”

Ten years later, it’s the year 2019, and Max has grown into a lithe and beautiful young woman: a feisty bicycle courier by day, an accomplished cat burglar by night (one episode preposterously suggests that she has “feline genes” in her DNA, as if this explains why she’s so good at climbing, jumping and going to the toilet in a small gravel tray).

Haunted by her mysterious origins, Max wants to find the other superteens before the “authorities” do — which shouldn’t be too hard, given the bar-code tattoo, and the fact that none of these tactical geniuses have hit on the idea of having it surgically removed by laser or covering it up with a scarf. Indeed, Max’s covert ops training on keeping a low profile includes, “Travel everywhere by tearing down the middle of the road on a Kawasaki superbike, pulling wheelies as often as you can.”

Max lives in the grungey post-apocalyptic Seattle, where some sort of “electromagnetic pulse” has wiped out all the computer records, and she teams up with a wheelchair-wielding pirate journalist who hosts a show called Streaming Freedom Video Bulletin from his immaculate hi-tech loft apartment — I could go on, but it’s such a tired old cyberfuture-by-numbers that, if it wasn’t so po-faced, it’d be hilarious. Fires burning in discarded oil drums? Check! Cops on the take in full Elian Gonzalez gear? Check! Black kids speaking overmannered street slang? Check! Check! Check!

Which brings us to Dark Angel‘s only unique selling point: Max, also known as haughty, pouting hottie Jessica Alba. On the plus side, she’s setting an exciting precedent for remaking all kinds of sci-fi classics, but with the leads replaced with teenage girls. 2001: A Space Odyssey — a team of astronauts battle a homicidal computer en route to unveiling mankind’s enigmatic origins among the stars. But, due to an administrative mix-up, they’re all teenage girls! Blade Runner — a bounty hunter faces some difficult questions while hunting down android “replicants”: What does it mean to be human? Can you ever truly distinguish between reality and illusion? And who’s cuter: Westlife or Boyzone?

Then again, anyone expecting a truly futuristic spin on Buffy (or even Clueless) here will be disappointed. True, Max has her run-ins with ditzy flatmates, drugs, child abuse and dating (in one of the show’s better lines, we learn that boys just can’t seem to see beyond “the whole bioengineered killing-machine thing”), but Dark Angel borrows Buffy‘s kick-ass concept without picking up the scathingly self-referential dialogue, the superb supporting characters, and the genius-like subtext of using supernatural nightmares as metaphors for everyday teen concerns (that episode where Buffy sleeps with Angel for the first time, and she doesn’t know if it’s just a one-night stand or whether an ancient curse has transformed him back into a hideous, soulless demon — but either way: why doesn’t he call?)

Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic; for all their “strong female characters”, Cameron’s films —with the possible exception of Piranha II: Flying Killers — are rarely noted for their playful sense of humour (for heaven’s sake, Dark Angel doesn’t even do that Charlie’s Angels movie thing of sneaking songs with the word “angel” in them on to the soundtrack).

Watching the show, you’ve got to wonder: what point is Cameron trying to make here? Is he genuinely trying to draw attention to the plight of teenage survivors of secret government genetic manipulation labs? Or the universal human dilemma of how we always lose touch with our friends from primary school? And when we eventually do run into them, we have nothing in common any more?

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