Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century was a book series which was turned into a film trilogy on Disney Channel in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The three films were Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century, Zenon, the Zequel, and Zenon: Z3. The last one was terrible, and is widely hated even among the fandom of the franchise; so I’ll only be looking at the first two films. Also, since I actually intend to put thought into the events of the films, SPOILER ALERT!
Socialism and Communism In Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century
In the late ’90s, there was a brief spasm in Western cinema when a lot of people in the film and TV industries wanted to explore socialism. This was caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, and real nostalgia for communism in the countries which emerged after the fall. Star Trek Voyager‘s episode “Unity” was the most famous example of this, but it wasn’t alone. The first Zenon movie rode this wave as well.
On the lighter end of this analogy, the station is portrayed as a socialist paradise. Zenon mentions that they grow most of their own food on the station “hence a lack of most meats”, yet she speaks fondly of it. Throughout the first act of the film, she talks about all the things wrong with earth, with crime and human suffering being rampant; indicating that the station is safe for all of its people. As a scientific research station, they perform research for the good of humanity. Recycling is the norm, not the exception. The station represents a socialist paradise. It’s almost futuristic Amish.
The station’s communist-socialist analogy extends in darker aspects. First, there’s an analogy of outside capitalism, with the Wyndham corporation plotting to destroy the station for insurance fraud. The capitalist elites are plotting to destroy the peaceful socialist people for their own gains. Next, there’s the crumbling infrastructure. In most media, the former Soviet Union has a reputation for having poorly supplied and poorly maintained infrastructure while actively encouraging development. They were good at building, and bad at maintaining. This shows in the station, with various malfunctions happening throughout the station. The station’s commander has a monologue about this: ” In March, we had cooling system leaks. And May brought power blackouts. And that small, unfortunate computer room fire”, “Well, our space station is 27 years old, people. But it needs major improvements and repairs.” The station is degrading. Yet it is a place of peace and cooperation.
Military Corruption in the Zequel
The second film in the franchise, Zenon The Zequel introduced a new system of conflict with the U.S. military, and the corruption they introduced. In Zenon The Zequel, the military purchases the station, after the parent company goes into receivership due to attempted murder, fraud, domestic terrorism, and the miscellaneous crimes of Parker Wyndom in the first movie. This is where things go horribly wrong.
First, the station, which is the home of the people who work there, and the only home the children of the station have ever known, is slowly destroyed. In one of the few non-silly lines of the film, she says “They’ve been here less than a week, and already these soldiers are about to start carving up our space station like med students on a cadaver,” right before the first module is jettisoned. Later, another one is jettisoned. These are very depressing scenes as we watch as people watch their home be destroyed, and they’re exiled to Earth. I think this could be a symbol for the ecological destruction brought about by various military occupations, such as the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam or the nuking of Bikini Atoll.
More disturbingly, after beginning an occupation of the station, the military defacto overthrows the local government, by taking the station commander’s office, and moving him into a broom closet. Later, the station commander protests the jettisoning of the modules, but he has no power to stop it. This could be a symbol for the retention of bases against the will of the local population, such as in many parts of Okinawa, several cities of Germany, and Hawaii.
The most shocking thing Zenon: The Zequel does is call out the corruption in the U.S. military. For international readers, this might not seem like a big deal. However, the United States of America has a LOT of military worship; and films that dare to question this worship are almost exclusively documentaries, and even those are rare. The film calls out this issue in the form of corruption in the school. One of the students blackmails Zenon into doing her work, under the threat of using nepotism to have her father fired. Additionally, the military considers the station unsafe and not maintainable, yet places people’s families there. So we have academic corruption, blatant abuse of nepotism, and fraud regarding basic safety, all of which are demonstrated with just two characters. Academic corruption in the military is a real problem: as shown here and here; as are a bunch of other forms I haven’t covered. Zenon: The Zequel was a brave film for calling out these issues. The film’s biggest flaw is that the end of the film doesn’t sufficiently address these issues. Sadly, they gave it an L. E. Modesitt ending.
Both Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” and Zenon: The Zequel skewer the issue of military privatization, which was a major issue in the early 2000s and the ’90s. It portrays the private corporations as corrupt in the first film, but in the second film, it portrays the military as a hub of corruption as well. I think this was intentional. The films are saying “it doesn’t matter if the military outsources, what matters is if the people involved are ethical people.” The film shows this by portraying both parties as corrupt.
Criticism of the Space Program
Hilariously, the film about a girl who lives on a space station also criticizes the state of NASA, the U.S. space program; or at least its state around the turn of the millennium. First, in the first two movies, all that is shown of our space program is some stations. Outside of the terrible third film, there’s no moon colony, and almost all humans are on Earth. There’s been little progress. Second, privatization has resulted in a program which actively values profit over scientific research or ethics “Insurance fraud murder has neither scientific value nor is ethical.”
On top of that, what we do have in space is portrayed as obsolete and full of maintenance issues in the films. The station is over 20 years old and had an ugly year full of incidents prior to the first film. This was the state of the U.S. space program at the time the films were made, with almost all progress being on space stations, and us only using the space shuttles, which were safety and maintenance disasters. Like them or not, at the time, the shuttles were 20 years old and we had already lost one. The shuttles had obsolete and inaccurate control electronics, and the only thing that kept them from being incinerated on re-entry was some ceramic tiles that absorbed the heat and were glued on. The station is an allegory for the shuttles, in addition to being an allegory for socialism.
Overall, Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century and Zenon, the Zequel, despite having cringe-inducing dialogue, are both films that manage to be about something. The former critiques the concept of socialism, the latter criticizes corruption in the U.S. military, and both criticize the U.S. space program. While these are flawed movies, they’re movies with a point.