Something in the supposedly pacific Northwest apparently lends itself to premonitions of apocalypse. Is it the haunting specter of a dismembered Microsoft? The prospect of hordes of Californians bum-rushing what used to be a secret haunt of programmers and hikers? Or simply some Cultural Affective Disorder brought on by an incessant rainy season? Writer Sherman Alexie offers up an emblematic vision of this Northwestern dystopia in his short story "The Sin Eaters," which imagines a last roundup where white people finally vent their mingled resentment of and desire for that elusive "Native American spirit." How do they do it? By literally extracting whatever secrets of survival hide within the Indian bloodstream.
Strangely, Fox's heavily promoted Dark Angel (8:00 p.m. Tuesdays; WFTC-Channel 29) begins with almost the same image--a multiracial herd of bioengineered kids penned up in Wyoming in 2009, prodded, tested, even bar-coded, within an inch of their lives. But where Alexie unmasks a racially specific anger that wended its way past the end of the trail, series creator and producer James Cameron just wants a narrative hook. It's 2019 when we next meet one of the 12 escapees, a quiver of cat-DNA-augmented anger and insult named Max (Jessica Alba), and catastrophe has struck. An electromagnetic pulse set off "20 miles up" by terrorists has wiped clean America's memory banks and thus produced (as usual) a ravaged society rife with police droids, state-sponsored crime, and squats. Threading her way through the chaos of Seattle as a bike messenger with the usual panoply of racially/sexually diverse buds, Max survives by petty thievery.
As in any good pulp (the classic text being Spider-Man, where Peter Parker suffers eternal guilt for not saving Uncle Ben from that robber), the trick is to wrestle Max out of selfishness--"All I want to do is go fast on my motorcycle," she growls--and into care for others. Cameron accomplishes this by having her rip off rich guy Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), a standard-issue Fox handsome/scruffy type who moonlights as a pirate broadcaster bringing truth to the masses. Grudgingly committing herself to the value of his project, Max attempts to clean up at least a little corner of the great wreck that the U.S. has apparently become. (Along the way, she'll need to evade the excellently intense mad scientist, played by John Savage, who wants to read the bar code on her neck and slam her back into a cage for more testing.)
To this point, Dark Angel has told its stories with zip, bang, pow--hell, a full complement of comic-book sounds--but not much soul. Cameron never makes much of a commitment to his backstory apocalypse. Of course, as far back as Terminator he revealed a preference for sniffing the ambiance of technodread but not really inhaling, as it were: He's interested in the set-design possibilities of mass destruction, not its spiritual or emotional aspects. Here, for instance, we get Max's Instant Message on financial meltdown: "When the bomb turned all the 1s and 0s into plain old 0s, everyone was like, 'No way!' Now America's just another broke ex-superpower looking for a handout." And I'm all "Come on, Jim, you can do better!"
In part, Cameron's problem is a lack of new ideas. Though cyberpunk ran out of bells and whistles for me a decade or so back, I assume some new concepts have surfaced since 1990. Yet everything here seems to be version 1.2. From William Gibson, Cameron has swiped the bike-messenger hero (Virtual Light); the First World-as-Third World role reversal (Neuromancer on up); and the rasta supporting players (Mona Lisa Overdrive and others). He has stolen his plot from the late, mostly unlamented Pretender and even cannibalized his own creations, the bioengineered kids' snowbound night flight echoing the pre-credit sequence of Der Arnold's True Lies.
More to the point, Cameron never jacks in to any of the deeper currents of his electronic fantasy. One of cyberpunk's kicks was its insight that the triumph of postindustrialism could reproduce a preindustrial world of lords and fiefdoms. Alongside that pessimistic futurism came the narrative charge of reimagining consumerism from inside: What if information, a wholly intangible quantity, were given form and sold on an open market, while consumer goods themselves became entirely virtual? Given the NASDAQ's pressing reminders that every bubble can burst, surely Cameron could put the set he has so handsomely distressed to good sociopolitical use--jab at our fantasies of eternally escalating profit, undercut our technophilia. Would a couple of Bill Gates jokes hurt?
At the same time, Cameron does dole out a whole lot of text, producing some of the highest-grade pulp we've seen in a while. (The loss leader for this program is the repeated opening and closing shots of black-clad Max perched atop the ruined Space Needle, staring fixedly into space like Batman in the Tim Burton movies.) This kind of brooding plays best to this actor's limited strengths. Given a wide variety of kiss-off lines ("You got a punk-ass mouth on you," one victim growls), Alba spits them out like Brenda Walsh with a black belt. Slinking around in a snappy leather outfit, she's the model of a 21st-century heroine: the very trendy hapa mix as a parent's nightmare with hipster shades, super strength, and the ability to beat up 250-pound men. "Girls kick ass!" she sneers. "It says so on a T-shirt."
The question, as with so many adolescents, is whether the character will ever develop more than mere Attitude. While Alba pouts with the best of them, she's still working on conveying depth, pain, complexity, the shadings of emotion that get readers hooked on good comic books. As of now, her line readings tend with few exceptions toward the affectless, a failing not aided by deadfalls on the order of "I was too young to remember [before the bomb], so, whatever."
There's the challenge: conveying not too much depth to violate the essential flatness of the concept, but enough to interest viewers between explosions. Cameron's best work has revealed his understanding that it's the humanity, not the machinery, that provides real substance in SF. If the show can make Max's predicament signify (just imagine tracing the corporate money that put her on the production line!), Dark Angel could grow into great comic-book art that nails this era's subterranean fantasies, like Superman in the late Thirties or The Dark Knight Returns in Reagan's America. We could use that these days: Anyone see exciting cultural possibilities on the horizon in Bush/Gore's America?