A Film by Karyn Kusama

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I remember the first time I saw Peter Chung's ultraviolent animated short, Aeon Flux--or, rather, a fragment of it. In the late 80's and early 90s, MTV ran a terrific series called Liquid Television, which served to showcase some great animated shorts--and some that were, frankly, no so great. From time to time, they would show brief fragments of what was obviously a longer work, Aeon Flux. The snippets were not necessarily in chronological order, and mixed in with other shorts. After a month or two of this, all I could say about Aeon Flux was that it was a beautifully made short cartoon about an implausibly gifted female assassin in a leather thong, penetrating the security establishment of some sort of plague-ridden near-future city-state to assasinate its dictator. Aeon Flux--at least the parts MTV was showing us--was totally without dialogue, hyperbolically weird, completely impenetrable, and absolutely fascinating.

Finally, MTV deigned to show us the complete Aeon Flux, from beginning to end. This...did not really clear things up. It was still beautiful, wordless, weird, and impenetrable. And it was still fascinating. In fact, I think part of the allure of the original Aeon Flux was its impenetrability. Peter Chung didn't seem to think his viewers needed to know exactly what was going on. The piece had a dreamlike feeling, as if Chung had downloaded a lurid nightmare directly from William Gibson's cortex. Later, Chung created more short pieces, which were released as an Aeon Flux collection--a worthwhile addition to your collection, available on DVD. This made the Aeon Flux universe a little easier to grasp, but only at the cost of losing some of its original psychotic charm.

Now MTV has decided to produce a live-action version of Aeon Flux, and the devolution of Chung's tasty, hallucinogenic short to pre-digested full-length feature American cheese is complete. With the release of this movie, MTV has finally killed Aeon Flux for good.

The movie starts out slow. But for at least the first 45 minutes or so I was hopeful that writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and director Karyn Kusama would take us somewhere mind-blowing, even though the setup was already pedestrian. A few years from now, you see, a virus wipes out 99% of humanity, and a scientist, Trevor Goodchild, engineers a cure for the remaining few million of us. Our descendants, ca. 2415, live in the only remaining human settlement, Bregma, a beautiful city ruled with an iron fist by Goodchild's descendants. It's sort of a post-apocalyptic Singapore. The current ruler is named after his progenitor, Trevor, and he acts like a benign dictator. His brother, Orin, is the enforcer, and has an evil glint in his eye. Some of the denizens of this city are impatient with Orin's methods, not to mention the government's nasty habit of plucking people off the streets and whisking them away, never to be heard of again. The insurgents are called Monicans. Since nobody ever leaves Bregma, and since the city is under maximal surveillance, it's unlcear where these rebel warriors get their training, funding, intelligence and weapons, but whatever.

One of the Monicans is Aeon Flux, played by Charlize Theron. She's not as angular or agile as the animated Aeon--but she does look good in a thong. Aeon gets her mission assignments piped directly into her cerebral cortex--there's a little chapel in her corpus callosum, apparently, where she shows up dressed like some kind of nun to take her orders from an apparition that looks exactly like Frances McDormand having a really bad hair day. Her new assignment is to kill Trevor Goodchild. The Monicans have new information and believe the dictator is vulnerable.

Aeon and one of her compadres set off to penetrate Goodchild's defenses, somersaulting their way through a security garden inhabited by some truly carnivorous plants. This is but one of many set pieces built around the grade-B action-movie axiom that if the character can simply do enough backflips, he or she can dodge any number of lethal projectiles. When Aeon finally gets inside Goodchild's fortress and confronts the great man himself, the intrigue--if you can call it that--begins, and the film takes pains to explain exactly what's going on.

That's a shame, because what's going on makes absolutely no sense. I won't spoil it for you, even though it comes pre-spoiled. Let's just say that the plot takes us through some elaborate bullshit involving gross misconceptions about human cloning, Lamarckian memory, impropable political infighting, countless rounds of ammo...and a lot more backflips.

The movie is pleasing enough to look at. The production values are excellent, and the filmakers have created some intriguing gizmos and visual effects. Even so, the best eye candy and weirdest features of the world-building are to be found in the film's first half, while the second half is dominated by gunfights with strangely contemporary-looking weapons, giving the viewer the odd impression that the film ran out of money at the 45-minute mark.

What's upsetting about Aeon Flux is that it could have been terrific. The original short, opaque as it was, had some clearly recognizable themes: terrorism, the infliction of physical and spiritual violence by the state upon its citizens, emerging diseases and pandemics, the instability of political institutions, and how the inherent brutality and unpredictability of the world casts a deep shadow over the meaning--if any--of human struggle. Aeon Flux the movie could have been a strange and challenging reflection of the world we live in today. That the filmakers instead opted to put together a half-baked 90-minute video game isn't just disappointing. 

It actually pissed me off. 

V meets Ultraviolet. Sullydog does not approve.

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