End Sinister: Live-Action "Aeon Flux" Just Sad
“That which does not kill us, makes us stranger.”
–Trevor Goodchild, from “Thanatophobia”
I wanted to hate this movie. I freely admit it—I went into the theater prepared to absolutely loathe this film, but I had my reasons.
Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and starring Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux is an adaptation of the MTV animated series that originated from the 1991 series Liquid Television (the same series that gave us Beavis and Butthead). Notable for its nonlinear story arcs and strong sexual content, the series followed the adventures of the title character as she indulged in ultra-violence, carried on a clandestine war with her enemy/lover/sexual submissive Trevor Goodchild, and died occasionally, only to come back in the next installment good as new. Now, I’ll admit to being more than a casual fan of the show—premiering a year before Batman: the Animated Series, this was my first taste of a more complex form of animated storytelling, one that wasn’t defined by storybook princesses or falling anvils—and I enthusiastically consumed each installment of the sexy assassin’s adventures (I even read the largely-forgotten book The Herodotus File, which chronicled Aeon and Trevor’s first encounter). Of course, as a fan, I’m very protective of the character and how she is depicted (a feeling that all fans have when it comes to their favorites), so I prickled a little bit when I heard that a live-action movie based on the character was actually going to be made (the idea has been batted around Hollywood for roughly ten years, but went nowhere until Theron got involved). My doubt in the project grew when I saw how conservative movie Aeon’s costumes were (which was, I suppose, to be expected), but my fears were confirmed when series creator Peter Chung revealed in an interview that he was not involved in the making of the film, which is always a bad sign. So, I was fully-prepared to hate this movie, but I must confess that I was mistaken.
Well, sort of. I don’t hate it, but nor do I like it, either.
As a generic sci-fi movie, it isn’t bad. It is worth a rental, or a late-night viewing on cable. It has a passable “futuristic” plot—one in which Aeon’s attempted assassination of Chairman Goodchild hits a snag, enmeshing her in a conspiracy involving cloning and disappearances—and the set design, while resembling any number of other sci-fi films, is all right (I particularly liked the blades disguised as grass from the trailer). However, as an adaptation of the Aeon Flux animated series, it is atrocious. It has nothing to do with the original concept, and it shows the studio’s complete disregard for the source material.
Not that the screenwriters didn’t do their homework. No, screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi certainly watched and re-watched the tapes that MTV undoubtedly sent them, and the result is a script filled with references to the original series. The fascist technocratic city-state is indeed named Bregna, after Aeon and Goodchild’s old stomping grounds (missing, however, is Monica, Bregna’s anarchist sister territory, which was separated by the jagged, Berlin Wall-style barrier replete with automated gun turrets and other nastier implements). Scafandra, the Monican agent with hands implanted to replace her feet, shows up to pay tribute to hers and Aeon’s daring flight through Goodchild’s security systems (from the episode “A Last Time for Everything”), though her name has been inexplicably changed to “Sithandra” for one reason or another. The Relical—the floating archive from The Herodotus File—makes an appearance, as does the mechanical harness that allows one to phase in and out of frame with reality (from “Utopia of Deuteranopia?”). In fact, they did such a thorough job with their “sampling” that I sat in the theater half-expecting them to throw in the narghiles, the custodians, and The Demiurge for good measure (kudos to you if you get those references). Yes, they tried their damnedest to make it sound like the world of Aeon Flux, but referencing the original series doesn’t make it an Aeon Flux adaptation; it just makes it a film pretending to be one.
To her credit, Charlize Theron does her best with what she has been given, but it’s not nearly enough…and it certainly doesn’t help that her costume and hairstyle look nothing like the character. The fact is that Aeon Flux has a distinctive look—she may have worn numerous costumes throughout the series and her hairstyle might have changed once or twice, but you could always tell it was her because of the constants in her design. And for those who would balk at the excessively revealing leather outfits, you might be surprised to know that her back-story is that, in addition to being a terrorist, she also works as a dominatrix and a model for fetish magazines, so it is appropriate for her character. But the most glaring oversight, however, is the fact that Theron plays her as excessively dour. When she’s not killing people by breaking their necks with her legs, she’s busy suffering through the angst that the script forces upon her, and that’s a problem: she’s not having fun up there. Watching the animated series, one immediately picks up upon the humor and playfulness of the character—she performs these missions because it’s what she loves to do (and it’s a way she can work out her sexual kinks). By comparison, Theron’s Flux is a depressing bore, and it doesn’t help that the writers saddled her with a younger sister and family life to worry over—for the character to work, Aeon Flux has to remain something of an enigma, with no ties to anyone other than Goodchild.
Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise that Trevor Goodchild emerges from the Hollywood meat grinder in even poorer condition than Flux. Played by Marton Csokas, the live-action Goodchild suffers from the crushing weight of mediocrity. Where is the casual ennui? Where is the sexual compulsion? Where are the George-Orwell-by-way-of-Jacques-Derrida monologues? In the original Liquid Television shorts, Trevor Goodchild is an enigmatic figure who walks in and out of Aeon’s life at will; sometimes appearing as a bystander, sometimes as an employer, sometimes as her killer. The actual series broadened him a bit, setting him up as the leader of Bregna so that he would be continually confronted by his opposite number, the Monican terrorist. Here, his character takes the form of a leader uninterested in leading—it was the means to personal power, but he cared little for the people who were pretty much lab rats in his totalitarian maze. His only respite from this tedium came in the form of Aeon Flux, and their intricate, tit-for-tat relationship is characterized by his obsession with her and her use of that information against him. In a better-designed version of this film, Trevor Goodchild could have been the narrator and, perhaps, the focus of the picture, and the story could have dealt with his ever-increasing obsession with Aeon, only to succumb in the end to the hubris of choosing woman over country (he’d still maintain power, of course, but without her it would hold little flavor for him). Instead, Trevor Goodchild is reduced from an enigma to a telegraphed property—moviegoers figure him out all too quickly and, where Aeon stumbles, Trevor falls, as his character is stripped of everything that makes him distinctive.
(It should be noted that Trevor Goodchild isn’t even the villain of this film. That honor goes to another who is even less convincing; he’d be better-suited as a bad guy on a soap opera. In fact, he reminded me too much of George Williams—the psychotic, milksop pharmacist from Desperate Housewives. Dangerous, but nowhere near the level of Aeon Flux; on the cartoon she would have shot him within seconds and never looked back.)
In a 1993 interview with Wild Cartoon Kingdom magazine, series creator Peter Chung revealed that the idea for Aeon Flux started out as a parody of action/adventure films; poking fun of their violence, their casual bloodshed, and their black-and-white morality. It makes me sad to see that this franchise has come full-circle—becoming the type of film that the original series was meant to mock—and it’s even more depressing to realize that this is what the majority of people are going to associate when they hear the name Aeon Flux. The film was a forgettable, one-time diversion—another generic thriller in the traditional Hollywood mold—but Aeon Flux the character deserves better than this. This film is the worst way for her to be remembered because once that bullet of public perception hits her, she’s going to go down…and we won’t see her get up any time soon.