[21 June 2007]
The most unjustly reviled theatrical release of 2005, Aeon Flux absorbed nearly unanimous critical punishment upon its release. Paramount Pictures invited some of the scorn by choosing not to screen the movie for critics in advance, a strategy usually reserved exclusively for fetid films. This makes the brutal response even more baffling, because Aeon Flux needed only to exceed deflated expectations. Instead, it drew viciously inaccurate comparisons to the hapless Catwoman, based on the most simplistic of similarities: both movies were commercial flops starring Oscar-winning actresses.
The film’s pivotal problem was that it was too geeky for highbrow film buffs and not geeky enough for science fiction’s most esoteric enthusiasts. Professional reviewers bashed Aeon Flux for being oblique, which is just as absurd as Resident Evil message board posters who debate the physics of the laser-grid scene. Judging from their transparent disdain for sci-fi, snobby cinematic connoisseurs fancy themselves light years removed from fanboys, yet the two camps share a stubborn streak. The former group dismisses abstract futurism outright, demanding documentary realism from surreal scenarios, while the latter accepts fantastical realms while anachronistically tethering them to existing scientific criteria.
For viewers willing to disregard its studio’s self-sabotage and the sci-fi stigma, Aeon Flux offers a thought-provoking plot and dazzling presentation. It uses quick-flash expository shots to diminish the need for dialog, exemplified by a scene in which it wordlessly depicts a pivotal treasonous act with a concise communication chain. Its morally ambiguous leads, an idealistic assassin and a secretly benevolent overlord, attract empathy without being stuffed into reductionist roles. The storyline, rich with philosophical complications, unfurls with the ominous grace of the sinewy fabric that hangs from the floating blimp memorial that circles the characters’ captive city.
Like its theatrical counterpart, Aeon Flux the video game enters the market at a distinct disadvantage, in this case because movie tie-ins are often inept. But while the film transcended genre stereotypes, the game, a graceless parade of charisma-bereft characters and generic apocalyptic-Tomorrowland backdrops, brutally reinforces them.
Charlize Theron, who stepped into Aeon’s burlesque-cosmonaut wardrobe and trademark monotone for the ostensible blockbuster, reprises the part for the platform companion. Theron’s been digitized nicely, but Aeon’s magnetism was lost during the transition. In the film, Theron summoned her orbs (basically, ball bearings that respond to her commands) with a mystical whistle that intertwined nicely with an ambient electronic backdrop. The video game forces Aeon to witlessly quip “roll out” every time she releases the pliant globules.
The other characters fare even worse. Trevor Goodchild, the dignified dictator and regal romantic foil, becomes a sleazily sadistic arch-enemy. Una, a sweetly naive utopian complement to sister Aeon’s uncompromising rebellion, denigrates into a one-note nag. She’s also saddled with the game’s biggest groaner: joking about how she disguised analytical equipment as a buffet table because the models won’t go near it.
Ah yes, models. Merging fashion and fascism, Goodchild stages a lethal runway competition in his own coliseum. (Incidentally, gladiatorial reality shows and genetically modified fruit might be terrifying topics, but they’re more ripped-from-the-headlines than futuristic fodder.) Aeon enters the contest as a cover for her clandestine surveillance work in Goodchild’s laboratories, but the context still feels like a betrayal. The movie never verbally referenced Theron’s attractiveness—a relief for an actress who has battled typecasting throughout her career—but it takes the game mere seconds to drop her on the catwalk.
While the individual levels are largely linear—the Model Behavior stage especially, because it’s part tutorial—the game as a whole willfully eschews narrative cohesion. Presented in fractured chronological order, Aeon Flux pays tribute to the obtuse episodic nature of Peter Chung’s original animated series, which aired on MTV in 1995. This model, during which characters shift allegiances without explanation, somewhat justifies the jarring personality incongruities between film and game.
In terms of control and combat, Aeon bears a strong resemblance to Bloodrayne, whose titular figure will soon star in her own likely-to-be-savaged adaptation. (The games share an engine, though the virtually bloodless Aeon boasts infinitely less gore than its vampiric predecessor.) Aeon executes acrobatic flip-kicks, exhilarating parallel wall-sprints, dramatic wide-circumference somersaults, and spidery grappling hook straddles. Her arsenal of cathartic combination moves is virtually limitless, which is fortuitous given that she’s almost always out of ammo for her four projectile weapons. (The coolest of these, the screen-warping, sound-absorbing shockwave, carries the additional benefit of temporarily silencing overripe dialog.)
Another reason to opt for hand-to-hand combat when engaging enemies (and, on a related note, to find and employ the unlimited health cheat code) is that Aeon can’t lock on her targets, meaning she must physically face every assailant. Also, awkward third-person camera angles necessitate frustrating blind jumps. A trial and error approach works during the situations in which players can instantly retry failed leaps. However, roughly half the time, a mangled maneuver results in an instant death and a tedious loading process. A combination that will vex even the most patient gamers.
Aeon Flux breaks up its insular progression (shoot people, use commandeered turrets to shoot people, and shoot more people) with a series of entertaining, if mildly derivative ball-rolling sequences. Like Metroid Prime‘s Samus, Aeon barrels through corridors in a circular vehicle. The challenging orb sequences recall Marble Madness, while the introductory level, with its emphasis on kicking spheroids, feels like a soccer simulator.
Despite such redeeming features, Aeon Flux the game pales in comparison to the consistently ambitious cult television show and the meritorious yet maligned movie. But even if it existed in a universe independent of its inspirations, Aeon Flux would be an impotent franchise-launcher. Its cleverly choreographed moves fail to compensate for its less than compelling missions, underwhelming graphics (every building looks like an architecturally absurd, sporadically neon-illuminated warehouse), and subpar soundtrack.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/aeon-flux/