Here’s a puzzler: Aeon Flux, MTV’s intriguingly out-there, aggressively abstract cartoon series from the mid-‘90s has been reimagined for the movies as a conservative tract promoting family “values” and heterosexual romance. Why translate the animation to fleshly form if you’re going to reject and undo what made it so compelling to begin with, namely, its gorgeous perversity and unsettling provocation?
In part, this is a function of physical limits: no way could the live action Aeon (Charlize Theron) manage the hairstyle of the animated Aeon, much less the scary wasp waist and freaky-deaky sexual exploits. But it’s also a function of what seems a completely contrary imperative to get the film rated PG-13. However this decision evolved, its sad effects are visible not only on screen but also MTV’s awkward promotional business. While Theron appeared on multiple talk shows and making-of sequences on MTV (showing off the stunts and the green screen work, not to mention some odd wardrobe choices), the charismatic director, Karyn Kusama (who made Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez), was nowhere to be seen or heard.
The film begins as if it will be more wondrously strange than it ends up. Aeon appears in stepping neatly in heeled boots and a thigh-slit black dress, her “futuristic” head gear providing stylish context for the means to her mission. She finds her contact, they kiss with tongue, and she’s slipped a pill that grants her access to her handler (Frances McDormand). This mission is assassination: Aeon is a killer for the underground.
When she’s not dissolving in and out of mindscapes, Aeon lives in a sparse apartment. It’s 2415, and a super-virus has decimated the population, leaving only a small band of survivors who live in a walled environment called Bregna. People wear the sorts of clothes that designers now use to designate “the future,” and shop for stuff. Their activities are monitored and individuals are regularly “disappeared” off the streets or from their homes, leaving behind grieving families and lots of questions about their corporate-totalitarian government.
The seemingly dictatorial leader of this government is Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas, much more conventionally handsome than the fiendishly compelling cartoon incarnation), aided by his obviously scheming brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller). But, as they like to say in such science fictiony situations, all is not as it seems. Or rather, it is much as you expect, because this film follows a perfunctory plot while focusing its energies on stunning visual set pieces (and they are great, only there are too few of them and they don’t necessarily help you understand Aeon any better).
The tv Aeon famously favored black-widow bondage gear, her body capable of impossible contortions (though not nearly so un-boned and bendy as the remarkable Sybil) and fantastic aggression. Theron softens this look and activity, but brings a steely resolve to her performance, so that Aeon isn’t quite so ambiguous as she was in anime form, and more traditionally sympathetic. While this tack is unsurprising, that also makes it questionable. Again, if you’re going to take up the representation of this fantabulous futuristic killer-babe, why reduce her to a figure who wants only to avenge her sister’s death (that is, to reaffirm family ties in a world where family is in crisis as a concept) and find a very average romance?
This last is mostly a function of the love-hate relationship between Aeon and Trevor, which almost immediately becomes love-love (unlike in the cartoon, where their mutual loathing and disturbing lusting were almost palpable). When Aeon confronts Trevor the first time (though of course it’s not really the first time, as their paths have crossed in former timelines), she has a sudden pang of recognition, and pauses. He has her tossed in prison, but only so she can use her too-cool devices to make an escape and to show off the technical excesses of her moment.
Together, Trevor and Aeon they must find the villains who have thwarted his efforts to repopulate the city as well as efforts by Aeon and her secret rebel group, including best gal pal Sithandra (Sophie Okenedo), to wrest daily social control from the Goodchilds. In fact, Sithandra offers the film’s most salient reference to the tv show, in that she has had “modifications” to her body in order to be better prepared as an assassin. Not to press the point, but the fact that the primary black character has had her feet made into hands so that she can spring over walls and climb trees with ease is not a little discomforting. The more things change in this future, the more they appear to stay the same. Where Aeon Flux used to be strange, now she’s just regular.