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Entries in Aeon Flux [2005] (1)

Sunday
Apr102016

Aeon Flux (2005)

Resurgent

Reincarnation is real, at least for movies. And I don't just mean thematically: I'm talking about movies being brought back from the dead as other movies.

Aeon Flux entered the world as a series of shorts on MTV's Liquid Television in the early 90s. Animator Peter Chung envisioned his dystopian-future action series as a parody of brainless blockbusters: the titular heroine is a leather-clad, gun-toting warrior fighting her way up the food-chain of an oppressive technocrat's regime. As enticing as this might have sounded to mass audiences, Chung subverted expectations by making Flux a gangly, grotesque dominatrix-type in a carnival-mirror world that shunned conventional beauty while embracing the trappings of fetishism.

Flux's early adventures were practically wordless, and saw the butt-kicking hero die at the end of every mission. The shorts became popular and began to evolve, eventually becoming a half-hour show with dialogue and stabs at continuity. Though the satire had taken on something resembling narrative substance, few people would have expected it to become a multi-million-dollar action movie, starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful and accomplished actresses.

Yet that's precisely what happened in 2005, when director Karyn Kusama teamed up with Academy Award winner Charlize Theron to bring Aeon Flux to the big screen. With this combination of casting, cult name-recognition, and the popularity of The Matrix franchise (which, it could be argued, was inspired by the original show), few could have predicted that the film would so thoroughly bomb critically and commercially. I don't know where my head was at when I saw Aeon Flux in the theatre, but I remember liking what Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi pulled off. The global marketplace and I didn't agree, however (surprise, surprise), and the vanished almost instantly, destined to be forgotten beyond the realm of trivia.

Or should I say, "forgotten by some"?

Fast forward eleven years to my recent revisiting of Aeon Flux. Yes, the movie feels very of-its-time, boasting loads of techno-scored shoot-outs and balletic martial-arts displays. But it is also alarmingly contemporary, specifically in its similarities to Veronica Roth's Divergent Series. I'll preface this by saying that I have no proof that Roth lifted elements from, or is even familiar with, the TV show--much the same way I am forced to accept the public record of Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, who claims to have not heard of Battle Royale when constructing her particular brand of YA blockbuster. But to paraphrase Bill Maher, I don't know it's a fact, I just know it's true: one cannot watch Aeon Flux and the three (and counting) Divergent films without wondering if there was some hard-core cribbing on Roth's part--or if Kusama's film has simply been cosmically resurrected in a far more commercially viable form.

For the sake of argument, I'll just leave this synopsis here and let you decide:

Four hundred years in the future, Earth is a wasteland. The remnants of civilization have walled themselves into a technologically advanced city that is controlled at the very highest level by scientists. As it turns out, the entire population is the result of a highly sophisticated engineering program, designed to reverse the effects of a genetic disruption that nearly ended mankind. A resourceful young woman rises through the ranks of those who would stand against the totalitarian tide. War ensues; revelations about the first natural childbirth in centuries become a major plot point; and the story ends with thousands of people setting out to face whatever lies beyond the wall.

Sorry, I forgot to specify which movie I was describing--the one that came out in 2005, or the film series that began in 2014. It doesn't matter, because their synopses are identical.

The resulting films are not so similar. Aeon Flux was ahead of its time, conceptually, and has an emotionally intelligent core. Flux's nemesis, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), is not a two-dimensional bad guy; that distinction belongs to his brother, Oren (Jonny Lee Miller), who sees genetic manipulation as the ultimate means of control. Trevor's motives transcend power, and I won't go into them here. The Goodchilds' program is littered with moral quandaries, and it's easy to understand why someone would want to bring them down. Hay and Manfredi make a strong case for Trevor's vision, though, and they allow Aeon Flux to stray into philosophical musings between the wire-work-and-demolitions extravaganzas--much like The Matrix; less so like the Hunger Games and Divergent films, which spend this precious time on gender-swapped Betty-and-Veronica love triangles. 

Time is key to appreciating Aeon Flux. Granted, much of the credit I'm about to bestow likely has to do with the fact that the film died on the vine, but it's refreshing to see a self-contained story that's under an hour-forty-five, and which isn't preoccupied with building four-part trilogies or cinematic universes. Sure, there's a bunch of goofy stuff in the movie (the assassin with hands for feet, the persistent Intro to Naval Gazing eye imagery in the set dressing, etc.), but it comes and goes, and I won't have to worry about it coming around again in hour five-of-nine. The filmmakers hit their points and move on. Then the story ends.

Aeon Flux is not a great movie, but it's not terrible, either. It's a perfectly middle-of-the-road slice of sci-fi that occasionally aspires to more than it should and, in the process, attains moments of genuine loveliness. That it was under appreciated in its time and has since been reincarnated as an empty-headed teen soap should not be held against those who tried to make it more than a twelfth-generation Xerox of The Matrix. Not everyone gets to come back as a butterfly, and sometimes dead really is better.