Dark Angel: Pilot

"The thing I don't get is why they call it a depression. I mean everybody's broke, but they aren't really all that depressed. Life goes on."

There are only a handful of shows that I hold very dear to my heart; Dark Angel is undeniably one of those shows. The series only ran for two seasons, but it left an immense impact on my TV viewing experience. In fact, I'm still very much in love with the show ten years after its cancellation, which speaks volumes as to how extraordinary a world (and vision) James Cameron brought to life.

This hour is a tremendous achievement as a pilot; it impressively lays out a vast new world and a sprawling cast of characters without seeming like a monumental exposition dump. In fact, the pilot wastes absolutely no time getting into the thick of things and getting us acclimated to the world within the span of five minutes. The premise is simple: a young girl escapes captivity from a covert government project straight into a United States that's been rendered a third world nation thanks to terrorists setting off a devastating electromagnetic pulse. This pilot is one of the most expensive ever produced (with a notoriously hefty price-tag of $10 million) and it shows - the set design, the details, they're all astounding and beautifully realized. In fact, within one sequence of Max cycling to work in post-pulse Seattle (the year is 2019), we get a precise handle on the poverty, the corruption, the mafias, the sector-police, and the utter magnitude of it all. The premise is fantastic, and the pilot does it justice on every level.

A lot of Dark Angel's success is thanks to its brilliant lead, Max Guevara, a genetically engineered supersoldier with zingers and attitude to spare. Sure she's stunning, but she's also cool, resourceful, and the ultimate badass in every sense of the word. I was impressed by how effectively the pilot showcased her entire skill-set by organically integrating them into the plot. From her zooming pupils and cat-like agility to her superhuman strength and speed, Max is a downright awesome protagonist. A lot of what makes Max great as a heroine isn’t just her strength, but her astonishing intelligence. In the pilot alone she carries out an elaborate plot in which she turns Bruno on Sonrisa, fakes getting shot into a pool, purposely makes sure Lydecker overhears Sophie’s location (so he can do the fighting for her), and escapes the fortified perimeter in one of his agent’s attire. Incredible.

I also love the fact that Max is not a goody-two shoes heroine. The girl's a thief, and is not above using her abilities for a quick payday. And yet, her character undergoes quite a journey in the pilot. She starts out purely self-serving and focused on her own problems. But by the end of the hour, the magnitude of Logan's injury and her seeping guilt make her question just how passive she can remain in a crumbling world with people in need. She says she doesn’t “care” but we know that can’t be true. She's an angel, but a dark one to be sure and there’s a beautiful poetry to it all.

A lot has been said about Jessica Alba since she rose to prominence on Dark Angel. Suffice to say, she hasn't had the most acclaimed career since then. She's become a mega-star of course, but has selected projects with thinly written roles that never properly showcased her talent. And yes I believe Dark Angel proves the girl is talented. She owns the role of Max and it's a shame she hasn’t played such a memorable character since. Max actually ties Sydney Bristow and Buffy Summers as one of my all time favorite heroines, and Alba's excellent performance is responsible for a lot of that.

Michael Weatherly is quite great here as Logan Cale, the idealistic cyber-journalist (and the notorious Eyes-Only). He's the perfect foil for Max, and their chemistry is immediately electrifying (Weatherly and Alba were engaged for several years thanks to the show so that's icing on the cake). Their partnership is a genius decision from a writing standpoint because his missions supply standalone plots, while her ongoing quest for her siblings provides the show with an exciting and thoroughly intriguing mythology.

As for the rest of the cast, John Savage is enormously imposing as Donald Lydecker, the frightening antagonist of the piece. He truly makes you fear for Max’s life as he attempts to track her whereabouts across Seattle. The fact that we see him shoot one of the kids makes him all the more terrifying. Valarie Rae Miller is also a standout as Max’s best friend Original Cindy. She capably embodies the character's no-holds barred yet hilarious take on life whose lesbianism doesn’t necessarily define her. The rest of the Jam Pony crew including Sketchy, Herbal and Normal get some okay moments but nothing too substantial yet.

I've always felt that Dark Angel was ahead of its time. Today more than ever, its message is extremely relevant as we’ve become entirely reliant on computers and technology to carry out our lives. While I've been enjoying Revolution this year, it's nowhere near as marvelous or accurate in its portrayal of a post-pulse world. Suffice to say, this is how all pilots should be constructed. The first hour skillfully sets up Max's world, and the second turns it upside down with Vogelsang ditching Max, Theo dying, and Logan getting shot etc... It’s simply phenomenal.

Post-Pulse Bits

- The opening Manticore escape is thrilling and superbly shot. Not only does it convey that these children aren't your everyday kids, it also introduces Lydecker as a ruthless supervillain who isn't above shooting the youngsters. I especially love the gorgeous panning shot of Max hiding beneath the frozen ice as we transition to her on top of the Space Needle in present day Seattle. And that haunting musical score? Gorgeous.

- Of course, Max has to have her Kryptonite; she's prone to violent seizures and disturbing flashbacks of her traumatic childhood in captivity.

- Unfortunately, the CGI is obviously extremely dated for 2013, particularly with the hoverdrones and the shots of Max on top of the Needle. Funnily enough, the effects on Once Upon A Time aren’t that much better.

- I’m a big fan of Max’s voiceovers as very few shows can make them work (Arrow is terrible, Desperate Housewives was my favorite). Max’s musings are sarcastic, witty, and a joy to behold.

- It's hilarious that Lydia is none other than Pam from True Blood! I love Kristin Bauer Van Straten and she's hilariously campy here.

- Max zooming through the streets of Seattle on her Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle? Just perfect.

- So Max is trying to track down Hanna, a woman who helped her escape. Hmm...

- The dialogue on this show is so darn distinct. It’s a funky concoction that takes some time getting used to but nonetheless feels very unique.

- Even more world-building: hoverdrones patrol the streets and people squat in buildings - like Max and her roommate Kendra who bribe the corrupt cop Walter to maintain their home.

- David Nutter's direction is impeccable with grand sweeping shots throughout the hour particularly during Max’s magnificent jump that lands her on top of Logan’s penthouse.

- The highlight of the hour for me is Max robbing Logan’s home. From discovering his Eyes-Only identity and pummeling "the side of beef", to being held at gunpoint by Logan and crashing out the window, it’s all way too epic.

- Max teaching Lydia a lesson by dangling her outside the building is insanely satisfying.

- I'm not too sure what to make of Max's "say I understand" shtick since we never hear from it again.

- I love how after Max and Logan banter over their corrupt world, she disappears and he realizes it’s because she’s avoiding the hoverdrone.

- The pilot's most emotionally-charged sequence just might be Logan flirting with Max in front of the mirror and then turning the tables and confronting her about her identity. The bickering, the staging, it's all pretty perfect.

- Max comforting Theo's wife after her husband’s death is especially moving.

- I love Max trying to suppress her guilt beside a comatose Logan only to spot a sniper and casually push Logan's bed out as the room explodes behind her. Badass.

- The entire sequence with Max infiltrating Sonrisa's mansion is outstanding: flipping and sneaking in like a cat, knocking the prostitute out, and then in one of the show’s iconic moments: doing that WALK in the red dress.

- Bruno searching and groping Max really irks me out. What a sleazebag.

- Max’s different skills are expertly set up and paid off throughout the hour: in the teaser she holds her breath underwater to survive, and at the end of the episode she does the same in the pool to fake her own death. Her nifty speed-dial trick (which she uses in the bar scam) is also utilized when she figures out the number of the kidnap site as Sonrisa dials it.

- Lydecker ordering his operatives to cover every window and “rat hole” is a very effective way of building up Max as a formidable soldier.

- Max taunting and throwing Bruno around the motel like a rag-doll always makes me laugh.

- I love the moment where Max makes eye contact with Lydecker and he only figures it out as she revs up her engine and makes her escape.

- Touching moment with the Jam Pony crew banding together to pay for Theo's ashes.

- Alba is great in that lovely instant when she discovers that Zack is very much alive.

Barbs & Barcodes

Max: Hope is for losers. It's a con job people trip behind till they finally get a grip on the cold, hard truth.

Max: What's the difference if I'm on call here or deployed in the field?
Normal: Or deployed in bed, asleep.

Normal: If he's not in at work tomorrow he can start looking for another job.
Max: I don't know how to break this to you Normal - we're all looking for another job.

Max: 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.

Original Cindy: You wanna be rich? Listen to the bitch. Give mommy the cheddar, I'll make your life better.

Vogelsang: You drive away business roaring in here like that.
Max: Does kind of break the elegant atmosphere.
Vogelsang: You got a punk-ass mouth on you kid.
Max: My name is not "kid", it's "client" - as in the person who pays for your opulent lifestyle.

Logan: You're a thief?
Max: Girl's gotta make a living.

Max: Kendra, this is a motorcycle. Its sole reason for being is to go fast, very fast. Not for you to use as a clothesline. Now, make no mistake. I love you as a friend and a roommate, but I love my motorcycle more.

Max: I just thought maybe he'd like some coffee with his saliva.

Logan: If I just got my ass handed to me by a size three, I might be inclined to mind my own business.

Logan: I'm looking for a young lady who works here.
Normal: Ladies would be elsewhere.

Cindy: Whoop. Xena's on.
Max: Let me go get my coat.
Logan: The one you're wearing?
Max: Right.

Logan: Her husband was murdered by a man named Edgar Sonrisa.
Max: I caught your hack; he's Satan's lapdog or something.

Max: (to Logan) So you miss the good old days. Even though there were still poor people who died from diseases when they didn't need to, and rich people who still spent obscene amounts of money redecorating the house to match the cat.

Max: (to Lydia) I'm working very hard to respect my elders here but don't push your luck.

Logan: Look...if I made you nervous or uncomfortable or creeped you out...
Max: Yes, on all counts.

Logan: First I watch you take out a 250-pound ex-cop bodyguard without breaking a sweat.
Max: Girls kick ass. Says so on the T-shirt.
Logan: Then I watch you dive headfirst out a window like you're Rocky the flying squirrel.

Max: Are you high? I've got people looking to either put me in a cage for the rest of my life, turn me into a science project, or kill me. Probably all three. Now I've managed to drop off the radar screen and I plan to keep it that way.

Max: (to Bruno) Geez, you're so stupid the word "special" comes to mind.

- Remarkably ambitious, the Dark Angel pilot is a truly exceptional piece of television.

4.5 out of 5 barcodes.

Previously posted on Nad's Reviews.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yay a Dark Angel review..Loved that show and Alba in it..and Logan and Cindy..need to do a rewatch..
Thanks for this.
Anna

Paul said...

I got it on DVD which I haven't watched in years, I think I might put it on right now. Thanks for covering this show.

sabrina said...

And it featured the beautiful jensen ackles!! Love the show and great that you're reviewing it now!

CrazyCris said...

Woohoo!!! I discovered this show a few years later on DVD and LOVED it!!! Hated the fact it was cancelled!

I had SUCH a crush on Michael Wetherly, in fact it's the only reason I gave NCIS a chance once upon a time (to sadly discover a much older Tony diNozzo in a suit and not nearly as sexy). The chemistry between him and Jessica was sizzling!

And yeah, great creation of a post-technological world! Mixed in with the weird science... *sigh* Why'd they have to go and cancel?! :o(

Reading this makes me wish I had the dvds so I could watch it again... I wonder how much they are on Amazon...

Anonymous said...

This makes another show billiedoux has convinced me to watch. The premise sounds awesome. I'm sold.

Mandy

Nadim said...

Ah I'm so glad there's still love for this show and that many of you are considering watching/rewatching. Now is the time kids! I'm going to take my time with this rewatch (probably one episode a week) so I can fully enjoy and analyze every single eppy. I urge you all to join me on the journey :)
And Cris BUY.THEM.NOW. I believe they're quite cheap at this point and totally worth it!

CrazyCris said...

I just checked... sadly 25 pounds each season on Amazon UK. Not in the budget at the moment! :o(

Todd B said...

Such a great show....was actually thinking about firing up those DVDs, especially season 1. Still one of the best seasons of scifi in the last couple decades.

You can also really see the James Cameron stamp all over the future world he built here. You can just tell it's by the same auteur that conceived of Terminator.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely criminal that this show only
got 2 seasons.
Could be a contender for the most underated show on tv. Very similar to nikita now, a lot more people should have been watchin this.
Has any show ever beaten the brilliant depiction of an apocalytic world. I think it beats many full movie productions about the same themes.
Jessica albas showcased better acting on this show than her entire movie career (minus sin city) and the cast was full of various quirky characters each with there own merits.
Jensen ackles stole the show in season 2.
Nadim I'm looking foward to your reviews. Keep up the good work on nikita aswel.

Nadim said...

Thank you so much! It really is so underrated and you're right, Alba was never better!

I just wish Dark Angel got a third season like Nikita did. They really deserved it!

TeenSuccubus said...

Yes! I've been waiting for a review of Dark Angel. This is exactly why I LOVE this website, you guys review all the shows I'm interested in or already love.
Dark Angel was so ahead of it's time.
It has elements of the 90s La Femme Nikita, a dash of Alias *both shows started in the early 2000s* and elements seen in shows like Dollhouse.

Nadim said...

Thank you I'm really glad people are enjoying these reviews. I've always known that the Dark Angel fanbase was still alive and well but I''ve wondered if there were any fans on Doux. Glad to see there are :)

ChrisB said...

OK, Nadim -- another show you've gotten me to watch. The DVD came in the post this afternoon and I popped in the pilot. Frankly, I didn't expect to like it at all.

Well, my bad! I loved it, for all the reasons you talk about. Throughout the first part with the kids, I kept thinking about how brave the producers were to do what they did. Shoot at kids? Wow, but it works.

I am not a fan of Jessica Alba's, but she impressed me here. I once had a crush on Michael Weatherly but, like Cris, NCIS cured me of that.

Thanks for taking this on. I'm looking forward to a new show.

Nadim Safieddine said...

Woohoo! I'm so pleased you watched it Chris :D I knew you would and that you'd love it!
And yes Jessica Alba is excellent here. None of her films ever came close to this show as it's really the only piece of acting she was ever truly great in!

Can't wait to discuss further eppies with you!