When we were listening to the Old People Rap Station the other day, the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes duet “What’s It Gonna Be” prompted me to joke about the brief time in the early 00s when all R&B videos looked like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. That’s when I realized I had never actually seen Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, despite being aware of it for more than half my life. The only reason I could conjure the made-for-TV movie’s aesthetic in that moment is because it was that heavily advertised before it first aired. It turns out, though, that it’s not a film you actually have to watch from start to finish to get the full picture. Just in knowing that Zenon was originally conceived as a pilot for a Disney Channel television series set on a space ship that vaguely resembles the set of the “No Scrubs” video is enough to clue you in on what the film can deliver. The only question, then, is how you’ll feel inhabiting that world for 97 minutes.
Imagine if the satirical wit was surgically removed from Clueless, the characters were age-regressed to junior high, and the whole thing were set on a space station. The titular Zenon, played by forgotten Disney Channel starlet Kirsten Storms, is essentially a futuristic Cher Horowitz in-training, far too whip-smart to obediently live a quiet life on her near-lifelong space station home. After acting out in a few too many (harmless) outer space pranks (often with the help of a sidekick played by a young Raven-Symoné), Zenon is literally grounded by being sent to live with her aunt on Earth. Besides her adjustments to the allergies, gravity, and Fahrenheit measurements Earth life presents, she also struggles with the pressure to beat the clock in two pressing concerns: 1) Saving her space station home from an evil corporation’s plans to corrupt it with a computer virus and 2) Making it back in time to attend a Microbe concert, which will be the first-ever boy band performance in space. I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself whether she’s able to save the day and attend the big dance climax, but I’m not sure plot is the most important aspect of this fine work either way.
In the second act stretch where Zenon is stuck on Earth and dodging the flirtatious/contentious attentions of her new classmates, I shared in her painful longing to be back in space. The most fun the movie has is its writers’ room playfulness with futuristic Heathers slang, casually tossing out phrases like “stellar,” “lumerious,” and “zetus lapetus” as if they meant something to the audience. Other turns of future-phrase that tickled me: “Gossip travels at the speed of light,” “I wouldn’t miss it for all the stardust in the galaxy,” and “Terra firma . . . the firma the betta.” I also was amused by off-hand references to President Chelsea Clinton and to how the band Microbe is so old-fashioned because their songs still have melodies. If the Zenon concept had been developed into a television stories, as intended, it’s easy to see how this kind of goofy future-slang could’ve been fun weekly fodder for the nerdier set of late 90s Disney devotees. It’s probably better for its legacy that it wound up being a television event movie (with two “zequels”!), though, since it’s still remembered fondly by the folks who caught it nearly twenty years ago. I imagine it was a great gateway drug into sci-fi nerdery for plenty of burgeoning geeks and its girly version of a pigtails, jellies, and shiny lip gloss futurism still stands as a great encapsulation of a very specific time in pop culture visions of the future my mind will continue to conjure every time I hear the right note of old school R&B.