We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name.
—Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron)
There’s always a debate of what the audience can inherently understand, like the rebels are rebels, a perfect society isn’t perfect. There are things to be unhappy about. But the studio always wants you to tell more, and make sure everyone understands stuff very clearly.
—Matt Manfredi, commentary
Cowriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi describe their film, Aeon Flux, as a “parallel, separate entity to the shorts,” that is, the Peter Chung animated shorts that aired on MTV some 10 years ago. (As they note in “Creating a World,” one of five documentaries on the DVD, MTV contacted them in 1999.) Hay adds that he wants to talk about the “connective tissue” between the texts, meaning that he sees some.
One of the more obvious examples of such tissue is an “homage” to Chung’s intriguingly out-there, aggressively abstract work: a fly buzzes and alights on the edge of Aeon’s eye (here she’s played by Charlize Theron): she catches it in her perfect lashes: “That’s a CG fly,” says Hay of the extreme close-up catching, just before she picks it out with her fingers in close-up, at which point it becomes a “real fly.” Manfredi says, “That fly’s name is Herman, he’s great to work with.” And now you know: these guys survived the process of turning the phenomenal and strange, after-hours TV series into a conventional PG-13 action flick.
The writers’ commentary track is smart, instructive, and funny. The film is less so. It starts in 2415. At first glance, Hay notes, the film presents a “beautiful future,” precisely designed, “clean, modern,” and punctuated by “Japanese” details (“no trash-can-burning, burlap-wearing” dystopia here, says Manfredi). The voiceover narration was conceived through “a lot of discussion,” say the writers, who wanted to lay out background: a super-virus has decimated the population, leaving only a small band of survivors who live in a walled environment called Bregna; the leader is Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas, more conventionally handsome than the fiendish cartoon incarnation), and Aeon is part of an underground rebel group called the Monicans.
“We originally conceived of [the opening] as these kind of expressionist paintings that were semi-animated and told the story in as brief a way and symbolic a way as possible,” says Manfredi. This idea gave way, over “the course of notes and stuff,” to a more literal representation. Hay explains, “That’s a first example of something in the filmmaking process that is a conflict between different ideas of what is important and what is the best way to execute a certain idea. I think to us and the director [Karyn Kusama], often there was a longer, more elliptical, more elusive vision of how people would absorb information, and for others, they believed that people wanted to get the information in a very specific and kind of literal way. And in some ways, I think that works, and in some ways, I think the elusive way could be better.”
In other words, he, Manfredi, and Kusama lost basic struggles over the film’s concept, suggesting why the result is so schizzy and disappointing. If only, you wish, they had won. (Kusama and Chung both appear in the featurettes, which include “Stunts,” “Costume Design Workshop,” “The Craft of the Set Photographer,” providing ordinary cheerleading: Charlize trained hard for the stunts, the costumes were inspired by Bertolucci’s The Conformist, the still photographer knows that “every picture is a potential poster.”)
A second commentary track, by Theron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, is more sanguine: the actor observes the film’s depiction of a “dreamt up world, but something that had some kind of reality based on issues that we’re dealing with today.” Hurd agrees—these “issues” are “concerns” for audiences and filmmakers alike. “Mm-hmm,” murmurs Theron. These ideas? “Freedom really isn’t free,” says Hurd, “who is a terrorist, who is a freedom fighter? Are governments always right?” At this point, you might be wondering what “reality” she has in mind, that she might even pose this last question.
Theron and Hurd focus on the film’s look and plot—the shoot in Berlin (“really a divided city”), “seamless” transition between location to set, the digital color timers, the tongue-kiss between Theron and real life boyfriend Stuart Townsend (who makes a cameo at film’s start), Fran McDormand’s contributions to her character, the Handler (or the “Frandler,” as Hay calls her), and the intensity of the physical training, which brought Sophie Okonedo (playing the bodily modified Sithandra) and Theron close together in friendship and performance nervousness.
While it’s clear the filmmakers decided not even to approximate the animated character’s arresting hairstyle, wasp waist, and freaky-deaky sexuality (bodies in Chung’s world bend impossibly), the outlines of Aeon’s idiosyncrasies remain, tantalizing. Once her sister is killed (the government believes she’s a Monican like Aeon, Aeon feels equal parts guilt, rage, and desire for vengeance. And so she welcomes her assigned to assassinate Goodchild, though she’s confused when she also feels drawn to him (this because they share a past, genetic and emotional, that she doesn’t really remember).
As Hay and Manfredi put it, they wanted to “humanize the villain,” following Chung’s original, ambiguated version. Their ideas, however, were usually rejected in favor of making Trevor seem a proper love object for Aeon (this left the pronounced misconduct to Trevor’s brother, Oren [Jonny Lee Miller]). Noting a scene in which Goodchild and Aeon converse on opposite sides of a transparent wall, where their reflected images “kind of merge.” She’s imprisoned, having failed to shoot him dead) is “the most like the show,” with “arch” dialogue: “You let me live,” he wonders; “Give me my gun,” she says, “We’ll try it again.” That said, they lament the loss of a scene showing Trevor “doing something very malevolent to somebody.”
While their efforts to complicate Goodchild were thwarted, Hay and Mafredi say they were also working to keep science fiction movie conventions at a minimum (Hay recalls their determination not to have any “Sector Seven moments,” where “some voice says, ‘Citizens report to Sector Seven.’” Alas, “some people think that is was science fiction is,” and so they had to settle for one or two in the film (they laugh). Similarly, Hay says, “We love the minor characters” (this as they’re watching the noble Claudius (Nikolai Kinski, son of Klaus). “The more you can invest them with their own story and their own deal… it’s just really important to the texture of the movie.” Judging from their recollections, such moments were occasionally judged “by others,” to be distractions rather than “texture.”
For Manfredi and Hay, the “entire movie is about reproduction,” by which he means clones, as means of repopulating the post-war city. Manfredi says, “It was a highly charged script… Characters have to reconsider their relationships to each other throughout.” Though such “recalibrations” are occasionally diluted by other impulses (say, to trace obvious character trajectories instead of creating uncertainties), Hay sees in the switching side, say, between Aeon and Trevor, or more interestingly, between Aeon and Sithandra, whose hands-for-feet, the boys agree, don’t get enough attention in the action. Neither does Aeon’s remark that their wrestling “used to be fun” (“They used to have a relationship at some point,” underlines Hay).
The primary relationship is the one between Aeon and Goodchild, which turns traditionally romantic too quickly (essentially, after that reflection scene). Their combined efforts lead to unsurprising triumph over the forces of evil (named Oren) and the reconstitution of a familiar moral order, where they can, as Aeon summarizes, “live once for real,” rather than repeatedly, as clones. Sadly, the film feels more cloney than new.