Dark Angel: The Dystopian 2010’s, When You And I Were Young

Yes, it’s a rare piece media critique instead of just writing about buses. Because I know you guys get bored with that. In Jessica Alba’s breakout role, a primetime, cyberpunk series that survived all of two seasons, Dark Angel is a pretty great tour-de-force that I rediscovered recently on an aging hard drive. I watched this series as a kid and I thought it was neat but I didn’t really appreciate it at a full level beyond the cinematic intrigue. The series was in a few ways bizarrely ahead of its time. Remember those predictions of self-driving cars that haven’t proven to be too realistic? There were a few pretty wild things from Dark Angel, which I figured it’d be worth revisiting– both as part of my interest in media critique, in general, but also in terms of thinking about how we envision the future. I’m especially thinking about this in light of my recent piece on imagining disaster.

Post-Titanic Hangover

Directed by James Cameron, riding the epic wave of his Titanic success (pun perhaps intended), Dark Angel is set in 2019. A terrorist attack unleashing an electromagnetic pulse has sent the United States into a severe economic depression. This detail serves as a metaphorical greenscreen of sorts– a bit frustratingly irrelevant to the plot. Jessica Alba’s character, Max Guevara, is the all-growed-up, hot hipster adult version of a super race of child soldiers bred for the exclusive purpose of kicking ass and chewing bubble gum. A few of said child soldiers escaped from their top secret training facility in Wyoming several years prior to the start of our show.

The child supersoldier– or, variously, superpowered child- is a tried-and-true trope. One might guess we’re attracted to the fancifully bizarre paradox of it. It allows for us to imagine the preservation of a naïve, untouched innocence of a child, but tempered, intentionally and nefariously, by a hardened surface level, sort of like, one might imagine, a crème brûlée– the fire-hardened surface covering the smooshy center.

It makes for great serial television because of the limitless promise of character development. We’ve certainly seen plenty of examples in series like Nikita (2010-2013) or Hanna (2019-present). Netflix’s Stranger Things or the short-lived series Emergence (2019, starring Allison Tolman, who rocks in the lead role) don’t really count, but Eleven and Piper are, respectively, similarly two in the line of succession of apparently usually female superkids. Boys are always breaking things and fighting, that’s not interesting! Anyway, in the Dark Angel series, there’s a whole thing about a shadowy government conspiracy and blah blah blah, but I was mostly interested in picking apart what they introduce in the beginning as a matter of politics and, of course, aesthetics.

The Glory Days of Cyberpunk

The new millennium was defined by the sudden and rapid growth of Al Gore’s Internet, which fanned the flames of human imagination in search of promise and peril. The turn of the millennium was itself thus flanked by some impressive works of cyberpunk, perhaps most famously The Matrix (1999), less illustriously Johnny Mnemonic (also Keanu Reeves, 1995), or, if you have a penchant for the pseudospiritualist, synergistic-ego-melange of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, Minority Report (2002).

Last year I also discovered the PC games Anachronox (2001), set on a Blade Runner-y kind of alien space station with all of the grit and noir you’d expect, and Omikron (1999), another one that dreams skyward while confronting the deepest, darkest gloom of the noir genre. I played Deus Ex (2000) as a kid, which also takes a positively gloomy look at a future involving a pandemic, bio-enhanced soldiers, and a healthy modicum of neon-punctuated, rainy darkness. 

Imagining Future Seattle

They call it a Depression, Max says in one scene, but people don’t seem very depressed. Indeed, a scene in the first episode shows bargoers watching the same dumb shit that we watch on TV screens in bars 20 years later: motocross crashes or demo derbies. In general, Seattle (Vancouver, really) is portrayed similarly to what it looks like today– rainy and with tall buildings. The future isn’t, at least aesthetically speaking, much darker than the present. (The Space Needle is abandoned, but Max hangs out up there in the title sequence, as though a predator surveying her domain for her next snack).

Aesthetically, the Dark Angel series sits comfortably in the canon of great American TV tempered by Canadian aesthetic and political sensibilities in the Vancouver film production scene. Vollywood or Maple-wood don’t have the same ring as “Hollywood North, the common moniker– we might think of X-Files (1993-1998 in BC) or Are You Afraid of the Dark (1990-1996). The series imagines a few things that seem, in retrospect, oddly prophetic: 

Flying Drones.

No, seriously! We see a flying police drone following Max on the street. Max has been able to maintain her job, though, as a bike courier. Jeff Bezos drones weren’t yet part of the popular imagination, I guess.

Google Glass.

Remember Google Glass? Released in 2013, the rival in the Dark Angel series was a full 14 years ahead of the curve. It’s pictured as a banal but high-end workplace accessory.

American Meltdown: The Popular Imagination of Energy Disasters

Techno-dystopian police zone in Seattle.

Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone vs. Jenny Durkan’s Police State? In 2000, Seattle itself was reeling from the WTO protests that had taken place not even a year before Dark Angel’s release in the fall of 2000. It’s unclear whether these protests– which helped catapult terms like “globalization” or “antiglobalization” into household terms, just in time for the great wars of the Pax Americana in Iraq and Afghanistan that would begin in the following decade- in any way inspired Cameron’s depictions of the police state here. I can’t figure out whether the timelines even intersected as far as production, but it seems fairly likely that at least the pilot would have been produced in the winter of 1999 to 2000, in which case Cameron may well have been thinking about this? I don’t know.

Corrupt cops apparently seem to still be a thing. 

Future Mobility– Bigger Cars, Smaller Cars, Bikes

Okay, so, I have yet to discover a series that gives adequate mention to public transit as a credible mode of future transportation. But in this, case, the streets of dystopian techno-Seattle are filled with a combination of fixed-up beaters (like Havana but a 1993 Ford Taurus cannot be made to age well), and even the occasional Smart Car. Smart Cars were brand spankin’ new in 1999-2000, so the primetime appearance might have marked the first time anyone had ever seen one (I think I had seen a total of one Smart Car in the US myself before seeing more of them in Germany in the early 2000’s). Bikes and Max’s motorcycle remain, of course, an important mode of transportation. The drones are but surveillance robots, rather than a mode of transportation– not quite Uber flying taxis yet.

Anyway, the series has held up pretty well as far as bizarre, dystopian futures are concerned, and it’s worth checking out. 

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Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner, journalist, and social entrepreneur based in the border town of Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset.

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