Cameron Tailors `Dark Angel' Sci-Fi

Monday, October 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — ``Dark Angel'' has the dubious distinction of being the only major network series to compete not just once but twice with the Bush-Gore presidential debates.

If viewers expected sheer escapism from Fox's new science-fiction drama, however, they misjudged James Cameron. The film director's TV venture is serving up philosophy and a dab of politics along with the special effects.

Sci-fi shows tend to dwell on big themes, especially when they have a big thinker like Cameron (``The Terminator,'' ``Titanic'') at the helm. He co-created and produces ``Dark Angel'' (9 p.m. EST Tuesday) with Charles ``Chick'' Eglee (``Murder One'').

The hero of ``Dark Angel,'' a genetically engineered, smart-mouthed superbabe (Jessica Alba), has escaped her military handlers and is on the lam in 21st-century America.

The series delivers action, natch, but also offers paints a society in which computer data has been wiped out by a weapon that left humans untouched. It also left them scrambling to make their way without their now-vaporized stock portfolios.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Cameron.

``I think people are way too focused on money and what I think of as the new national lottery, tech stocks,'' he said in a recent interview. ``And everybody is thinking it's OK for our culture to just be a service culture and not create anything and just make money as sort of gatekeepers.

``I think that's problematic. I think we lose touch with creativity. I think we lose touch with the work ethic. That's going to be in (the show); that's my personal philosophy,'' Cameron said.

He's not trying to be a complete downer. The title may be ``Dark Angel,'' and the look of the show may be dark, but there's light in its soul, Cameron insists.

``The show tends to be hopeful. It asks, `What if you took the most prosperous nation in the world and put it back in a depression? What would people be like?' And the answer is they'd get by. They'd work with each other, learn to adapt.''

Not without rough times. Alba's character, Max, and allies she meets along the way (including Michael Weatherly as a bold crusader) have to cope with relentless government scrutiny and official corruption.

The chief villain is Lydecker (John Savage), the military man hunting Max and other test-tube prototypes who also managed to escape a top-secret compound.

Cameron and Eglee, who became friends while learning the low-budget filmmaking ropes with director Roger Corman, cooked up ``Dark Angel'' to play to Cameron's strengths as a sci-fi master (besides ``Terminator'' and its sequel, his credits include ``Aliens'' and ``The Abyss'') and Eglee's TV expertise.

Eglee, who has worked on shows including ``Moonlighting,'' ``L.A. Law'' and ``NYPD Blue,'' was eager to team with Cameron but hesitant about tackling an unfamiliar genre.

``I said, `Chick, that's a plus,''' Cameron recalled. ``I've found historically that some of the best science fiction is written by people who don't write science fiction, because they come to it with a fresh eye and don't make any assumptions.''

Besides, Cameron said, creating sci-fi for television necessarily involves changes.

``You can't do spaceships and robots and giant `Independence Day' vehicles hovering over Manhattan,'' Cameron said. ``You have to scale it down to the size of a human close-up, really; that's where it lives and breathes.''

``Dark Angel'' has its share of special effects. The two-hour pilot episode reportedly was budgeted at $10 million, and although it came in for somewhat less, still cost considerably more than other pilots.

``There's truth in advertising: Jim Cameron's name is on the show and that creates a set of expectations in the audience's mind, and we need to be able to deliver on that,'' Eglee said.

The weekly budget has been reined in, Cameron said without naming a figure, but it ``scales'' to the premiere episode.

``We didn't want to do something that was flash in the pan on the pilot and then couldn't deliver after that. ... It should look about the same,'' he said of the show shot in Vancouver, Canada.

While Max copes with trying to save the world, how much pressure is there on box-office king Cameron to make his maiden television venture a winner?

``Dark Angel'' has yet to match its Oct. 3 debut when it drew about 17 million viewers against the first presidential debate, but it is performing respectably for Fox.

``I don't feel that much pressure,'' Cameron said. ``I do my best with everything I do. (A series) is a very different thing than a movie, where you just fire it off like a missile and it either hits or it doesn't and it's all over by midday Saturday.

``With this, we're not going to know where it's at for a long time.''


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