Friday, January 29, 2016

Staying Positive: Aeon Flux

by Adam Thas

Growing up in the '90s, I was a fan of the Aeon Flux cartoon (even if only lasted one season). It was weird, had a lot of action, and was a very interesting bridge between American and Asian animation styles. I loved it. So when I found out 10 years later that a live action version was going to be released, I was of course ecstatic. Aeon Flux disappointed. It just didn’t feel right and didn’t have the strangeness that the cartoon had. Even the beautiful Charlize Theron couldn’t save it for me. Critics hated it, I hated it, and creator Peter Chung hated it. So let’s travel 400 years into the future and save humanity by staying positive with 2005’s Aeon Flux.

Right away, Aeon Flux feels like the cartoon in the sense that it drops you right into the plot. Like many post-apocalyptic movies, the plot is summed up via voice over in the first few minutes. The year is 2415 and most of humanity has been wiped out by a deadly virus. The survivors have banded together and live in a mega-city named Brengna with its leader Trevor Goodchild. Aeon is a member of a group of rebels fighting against the Goodchild family named the Monicans. It starts off pretty simple but very quickly the plot becomes increasingly complex, with a scope that gets a bit too big for its running time. However, I’m going to turn that into a positive. I personally would rather have a plot too big for the running time than one that struggles to fill it.
Aeon Flux is better than I remember it. The problems the movie has are not a problem with being poorly made. Karyn Kusuma, who had only made one movie previously (Girlfight), does a good job with the action beats as well as the pacing. It’s a tough screenplay to get right and make sense of, with a lot of gadgets and a continuing plot point where the characters communicate psychically in an astral commune of sorts. It could have been a lot more confusing than it was. Usually when I watch a movie, the first sign that a director might be in over his or her head is when the action falls apart. Kusuma mostly shoots action very well, including a fight scene with a teleportation device that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

Visually, Aeon Flux totally works on me big time, and as the movie played my shell of hate for it slowly crumbled. There were a few scenes where I was so taken back by the visuals that I was sure they had stolen it from the cartoon. After watching the cartoon again, I discovered they had taken themes, but not stolen the visuals, which impressed me. In some cases I feel like similar sequences were handled better in the movie than in the cartoon -- in particular a scene where Aeon Flux and her partner need to traverse a series of booby-traps and sentry guns. The movie decides to have it be in a deadly garden rather than the cement Cold War style portrayed in the cartoon. It works, and there are several shots (one in particular where Aeon is jumping over holes in the concrete creating an amazing negative space image) that seemed inspired. Directly following the garden scene, Aeon is tasked with destroying the Goodchild surveillance network shown as images in water dropping from the ceiling. I don’t know if this was the original idea or one that was made after shooting locations were found; either way, another score in the visuals department.
The plot itself feels almost like The Matrix without the payoff in that the mystery reveals itself at about the midway point and the main characters now exist in the new reality the plot reveals. It’s a clever mechanism but unfortunately doesn’t have the impact that it should on the characters. There are only two true main characters in the movie, played by Charlize Theron and Marton Csokas. Both are fine doing what they need to do, with Theron making sexy seem effortless as she’s done numerous times. Otherwise, everyone else is just kind of there. No one stands out but no one is aggressively bad to the point of ruining the movie.

Now I’m watching Aeon Flux and I do not hate it. I’m actually moving closer to liking it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Like many movies, it has a third act problem and a few of the characters have odd motivations for making some of their decisions, but not enough to make me hate it -- I’ve forgiven movies for less. I think the biggest problem that Aeon Flux has and what is responsible for much of the hate is two parts: the first is that it’s not the thing that we love. Even though it only lasted one season, Aeon Flux has quite the cult following in the sci-fi community, and rightly so. For many, especially in my generation, Aeon Flux is that introduction to anime and more adult themed cartoons. It’s important to us. To have something come along and fundamentally change some aspects of that thing makes us hate it. It’s like someone hating the end of Watchmen because it wasn’t like the book. I get it. I partook in it in this case.
The second reason, and one that is on the screen, is that the interaction between the characters is quite shallow. What drives the cartoon from episode to episode is it follows two people (Aeon and Trevor) who love each other but continuously find themselves on opposite sides. There is little to none of that tension in the movie, and it becomes very reliant on a plot that is hard to get invested in. Rumors are that the studio cut 30 minutes out of the movie. I don’t know if this was a good or bad thing, and since the film community isn’t exactly demanding a director’s cut, I doubt we’ll ever see it. Using the Watchman comparison again, Watchmen changes aspects of the plot, but at its center still understands what made the book work. Aeon Flux changes the plot but also changes the character dynamics. It gets the action right, it gets the gadgets and science right, but misses what made the cartoon work.

When the movie ended I found myself being able to divorce myself from the source material and found that I enjoyed Aeon Flux a lot more than I did before. It still has its problems but this is probably the easiest “Staying Positive” I’ve written yet. I walked away from this one not just appreciating it more, but actually kind of liking it.


  1. I sort of feel like AEON FLUX is one of those 90s movies that wasn't made in the 90s.

    It's also fun to think of this movie as the Imperator Furiosa prequel.

    Good column, Adam!

  2. Funny I recently caught this on cable for the first time since the 90’s. Since I was such a fan of the cartoon I remember thinking they just got it all wrong and wasn’t pleased with the interpretation. Flash forward to nowadays and I can’t remember much of the cartoon. So this time around, while still pretty groan worthy, I found myself kind of enjoying the overall vibe of the movie. Likely because it reminded me of the cartoon…and the snake eats its tail. One constant, both times I was super bummed that lady hand feet got jammed up by grass blades. Always down for Ambidextrous-Fu.

    Dig the column!

  3. Hey look it's me! It's my column I did on another site. You should choke on a bag of dicks you fucks!!