Close to a decade ago, at a comic book convention in Los Angeles, animator Peter Chung was asked by a fan if he’d ever consider allowing a live-action movie to be made based on his avant-garde MTV series Aeon Flux. Chung said he had no interest in such a thing, because there were so many more possibilities with animation that hadn’t yet been explored. Despite the allure of a seminude butt-kicking babe as lead character, Aeon Flux resisted easy translation to screenplay formula: It was obstinately nonlinear, gleefully amoral (the series ended with Aeon committing global genocide), and kinky in a way that blockbusters usually aren’t. Not to mention it was futuristic sci-fi that would invariably require a huge budget. The notion of it being a hit movie seemed about as likely at that time as, say, a Sin City movie.
Chung presumably ran out of money at some point and changed his mind, and now we have an Aeon Flux film aimed at kids who probably didn’t see the cartoon when it aired. Old-school fans were rightly worried: Advance clips of the movie looked nothing like the cartoon and far more like a conventional action flick. The director, Girlfight‘s Karyn Kusama, was untested with a big budget. And just to make everyone really nervous, Paramount canceled all press screenings, a tactic usually reserved for such horrors as In the Mix.
That was probably a mistake, as Aeon Flux is exactly the sort of movie that could benefit from a well-placed quote or two, especially since it’s a lot more oddball than you might have been led to expect. At least half is brilliant and inspired; frustratingly, the rest frequently lets it down, but overall it’s still a lot more interesting than your average chick-in-spandex-with-guns movie.
You can’t really nitpick the fealty of Aeon Flux the way you can with a Batman movie, for instance. The latter has an established canon and origin, while Aeon was continually redefined by her creator. Debuting as a short on MTV’s experimental animation show Liquid Television (a far cry from anything the network does nowadays), the futuristic assassin died at the end of the first season, falling far short of finishing her mission. In season two, Chung gave her an ignominious death at the end of every episode, without any explanation the following week as to why she hadn’t stayed dead.
Ultimately, a half-hour series was born, and while continuity was violated often, certain ground rules were established: In a futuristic world teeming with mutants, amputees, and the occasional alien, the city-states of Bregna and Monica exist in a Cold War state, divided by a wall. Bregna is ruled by Trevor Goodchild, an androgynous dictator who’s also something of a mad scientist. Monica is more anarchic, and Aeon hails from there, frequently making sabotage runs into Bregna and butting heads with Goodchild, who is both her arch enemy and her lover.
The movie is a little different. Bregna is now the one and only city left on Earth four hundred years from now, surrounded by a jungle. There’s no nation called Monica, but the terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view) who rebel against the tight control of the government are called Monicans. Aeon (Charlize Theron) is the best of them. Sent on a mission to assassinate Chairman Goodchild (Marton Csokas), she suddenly finds herself falling for him and realizing that the situation is not what it appears.
Kusama retains many of the weird gadgets and reality-bendings of the series, including a nifty device that warps the wearer between different dimensional frequencies within the same room. Aeon isn’t as scantily clad, but that’s mainly a technical thing — it’s harder to conceal a stunt harness on bare skin.
Sadly, much like in Judge Dredd, an initially spot-on characterization ends up deconstructed and rebuilt into Hollywood cliché. Trevor and Aeon are both given siblings who influence their choices, and worst of all, a rational motivation for why they’re lovers and soulmates. Aeon doesn’t die repeatedly, but it is explained how it’s possible that she could. Goodchild even has a macho makeover, with tousled dark hair and five o’clock shadow, whereas his animated prototype was closer to a young David Bowie. Demerits go to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, who has ignored Chung’s fetish-ball style completely in favor of hideous generic outfits.
A perfect Aeon Flux would have been like a cross between David Lynch’s Dune and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, though it’s hard to imagine such a thing getting the greenlight. Kusama offers moments of inspiration, but it frustrates like hell that she couldn’t nail it completely.