Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Project DCOM #6: ZENON: GIRL OF THE 21ST CENTURY


Zenon's the coolest. She's a tweenage dream. The smart, pretty 13-year-old girl is clever enough to outsmart every adult, lucky enough to get everything she wants, and sharp enough to figure out every situation well before anyone else. The entire narrative arc of Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century comes down to no one believing Zenon about plot developments major, things subsequently going badly for many, and finally the eventual discovery that Zenon was right all along, an admission that then saves the day. Not bad for a girl who is also young and innocent enough to completely and totally flip out over the hot boy band Microbe and the dreamy (I guess) lead singer Proto Zoa.

That may sound like denigration, but it is in fact praise. The reason why Zenon the movie works so well is because Zenon the girl is just so cool. She's the Ferris Bueller of the space station. She's the cutest, most popular kid in space. Young actress Kirsten Storms (nowadays, 14 years later, appearing on General Hospital) plays it up well as a younger, more self-aware version of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. She's the charismatic blonde around which her friends and family rotate. The film's namesake, the center of attention, and the one character in nearly every shot of the movie, Storms proves to be a confident and charismatic young performer. Living in orbit with her scientist parents (Greg Thirloway and Gwynyth Walsh), the movie follows Zenon through the day to day operations of being a tween in 2049, that is until the plot comes crashing in, sidelining Zenon unfairly.

She's the only one on the space station to catch on to an evil scheme, which the would-be perpetrators of course deny. The villain is the slimy moneybags who bankrolls the privatized research station, a man (Frederick Coffin) intent on cashing out his investment by any means necessary. If Coffin had a mustache, he'd twirl it. It's his benefactor status that gets him out of suspicion and Zenon's accusations branded as lies. This gets her sent to Earth as punishment, where she will stay with her non-space-going aunt (Holly Fulger). Will she get word of the dastardly billionaire back to space in time to prevent the station's destruction? What do you think? The main problem for Zenon seems to be that all the adults think the only reason she wants to be back in orbit is to attend the first ever rock show in space that will find her beloved Proto Zoa and crew performing their hit song "Supernova Girl" right from her home "spay stay."

First aired in January 1999, Zenon is to these eyes the best DCOM up to that point. With a bigger budget, the movie could've easily been a theatrical release. (It's certainly better than Disney's live action My Favorite Martian remake, which hit theaters the next month.) It's corny and aimed at children, but what of it? It's also fast-paced and has a decent mix of silly and serious. The stakes are high, but the outcome is hardly in doubt. The movie's always good-natured (I mean, it ends with a dance party, people!) and filled with the kind of genre cheese that ages well. Instantly dated in mostly charming ways, Zenon is a time capsule of the time it was made much more than the speculative time in which it's set. An early scene is structured as a fake-out in which a holographic teacher drones on about President Clinton, who at one point he eventually and forcefully refers to as Chelsea. Ha ha.

It's in the sci-fi film tradition of 1976's groovy Logan’s Run by positing that people in the future will live in a spiffy shopping mall. The station, CG establishing shots of which look roughly as convincing as a high-end Windows 95 screensaver, is filled with rooms that like a food court with submarine-style corridors connecting them. The palate is all pastel purples, blues, and pinks with some Day-Glo accents in the fashion. As for technology, there are chunky iPad approximating devices, holographic teachers, and the vaguely Skype-like "datazapping." Not terrible for a 14-year-old attempt at imagining 50 years ahead, super (and endearingly) strained future slang ("Zetus lapetus!") aside.

Director Kenneth Johnson, the man behind Short Circuit 2 and the terrible Shaq-starring action movie Steel, films Stu Krieger’s script with some nice moments of modest style with the budgetary and format restrictions that make the whole thing cramped at times. I was particularly taken with a nice spinning shot that circles a climactic confrontation that finds a great way to add visual interest to what would have otherwise been a flat moment in a stuffy set. There's a sweetness and a sense of fun through the movie that breaks out in winning ways. There's a charming and relaxed subplot about a crush Zenon develops on an Earth boy (Gregory Smith) and a convincing chemistry between her and her best friend (Raven-SymonĂ© post-Cosby Show, pre-starring in her own Disney Channel series). The very-90s boy band has funny swagger and Phillip Rhys is having a lot of fun playing the lead singer who struts around waggling limbs and hamming it up. But it all comes back to Zenon, who holds the whole thing together with her charm. She's everyone's best friend, after all.

Up next: Can of Worms

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