Aeon Flux (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

The writers' commentary track in Karyn Kusama's Aeon Flux is smart, instructive, and funny. The film is less so.

Aeon Flux
Karyn Kusama

2 Dec 2005 (US)

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 ten 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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.