Judge Michael Rankins thinks that if he installs this DVD in his DeLorean, he can travel through time.
The perfect world meets the perfect assassin.
Based on the animated series created for MTV by the visionary Peter Chung, Aeon Flux will either entertain you, infuriate you, or bore you to tears.
My job is to help you figure out in advance which of those three possibilities is most likely to be true for you.
Facts of the Case
Four centuries into the future, the human presence on Earth is confined to a single city, the totalitarian utopia Bregna. The surviving five million people live in oppressively dazzling surroundings, governed by a cabal of scientific geniuses led by the omnipresent Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas, Asylum) and his duplicitous brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller, The Escapist).
But just as every Eden has its hidden thorns, so too Bregna's smooth, sunny surface masks a festering undercurrent of fear and discontent. Seeking to liberate humanity from the Big Brotheresque rule of the Goodchild siblings is a secret society of rebel fighters called the Monicans, whose operatives covertly meddle in the Goodchilds' machinations and attempt to throw utopia off its axis. The Monicans' Number One special agent goes by the name Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron, Monster).
When Aeon's sister is murdered by the Goodchild government—as seems to happen in Bregna with alarming regularity—the operative's campaign against the established order turns personal. Then, the Monicans' leader, the mysterious "Handler" (Frances McDormand, Fargo) gives Aeon the assignment of a lifetime—exterminate Chairman Trevor Goodchild. In carrying out her mission, however, Aeon discovers that the man whom she has sworn to kill may not be exactly what he appears to be…and that Aeon herself may be more than even she knows.
Your potential enjoyment of Aeon Flux the motion picture is intimately connected to your familiarity with, and affinity for, Aeon Flux the animated series—only in different ways. The more familiar you are with the TV show, first aired in the late 1990s on MTV, the more easily you will be able to decipher who's who and what's going on amid the twists and turns of the film's labyrinthine plot. On the other hand, the more rabid a fan you are of the series, the less likely you are to appreciate the considerable liberties the filmmakers have taken with Peter Chung's original vision.
Even the phrase "considerable liberties" understates the case to a significant degree. With the exception of a few character and place names and the general parameters of the premise, Aeon Flux bears precious little resemblance to its animated predecessor. Only you can decide for yourself whether that's a good thing.
I fall somewhere in the middle, which is probably why I liked the film more than almost anyone I know who has seen it. I watched the animated series—having been hooked by the even more bizarre animated shorts that spawned the series—frequently during its MTV run. I liked it enough to keep tuning in, but would not describe myself as a hardcore fan, mostly because the show—compellingly weird and visually stunning though it was—didn't make much sense. The film, comparatively speaking, follows a more prosaic line. Its plot tracks a bit more easily, and its characters and their motivations are more conventionally defined than those of the series. I can't imagine how the sensibility of the animated product could have been faithfully translated to a feature-length, live-action movie without losing most of the audience completely. The film is very different in its ambitions, but as a film, it works. Not perfectly, mind you, but more often than not.
All of which raises the broader issue of adaptation from one medium to another. Fans of an original fictional concept often find themselves angered when someone dares to take their beloved stories and characters and change them to suit a different narrative device. Recall the furor over the Harry Potter films—many devoted fans preferred director Chris Columbus's slavish translation to film of the first two volumes in the series to the more creative approaches (necessitated by the increasing length of author J.K. Rowling's books) taken in the more recent movie installments. Recall the ire Ang Lee ignited among comic book partisans when he took a markedly novel direction with the subject matter of Hulk. Aeon Flux elicits similar responses. If you're of the opinion that Peter Chung's animation is gospel and ought not to be tampered with, you're going to find yourself kicking the coffee table throughout this movie. If you never saw the TV series and only picked up this DVD so you could watch a spandex-clad Charlize Theron kick major butt, you may like it just fine.
The script by writing team Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Crazy/Beautiful, The Tuxedo) is less smart than it thinks it is, and more complicated than it has to be. Some of this dichotomy (according to the writers as they natter away on one of the disc's two commentaries) may be attributed to changes made by the studio while the film was in production, even into the editing stage. How true that is I can't say with certainty. Several times the movie introduces an interesting character (such as Aeon's protégé, Sithandra, played with winsome mystery by Hotel Rwanda's Sophie Okonedo) or an intriguing plot development (the relationship between Trevor Goodchild and some of his advisors, who may or may not be loyal to him) and then fails to build upon the promise. There's also far, far too much expository claptrap in a film that really should grant the audience more credit for understanding what's happening and just move along.
Director Karyn Kusama (who is oddly absent from either audio commentary) brings a startling visual sense to Aeon Flux, along with a surehandedness that lets the audience believe that even when we aren't sure what's supposed to be going on, the person behind the camera knows. Kusama manages to create a world that evokes Chung's freakish and twisted animation style without feeling forced to replicate it in every detail. There's also a nice feeling of environmental completeness—that sense that the world of the film actually extends beyond the borders of the screen. It's a challenge every science fiction filmmaker grapples with, and Kusama wins her battle convincingly.
What makes Aeon Flux frustrating to watch, even for the favorably disposed viewer, is its fits-and-starts structure. Blame it on the editing, or the script, or what have you, but this film labors to find its groove and succeeds only fitfully. The flat affect required of the cast—and I'm guessing this was a conscious directorial choice, since we've seen most of these actors deliver much livelier performances in other venues—also contributes to the picture's off-putting emotional tone and makes it hard for the audience to embrace it.
Stick with it, though. Despite the odds stacked against it, Aeon Flux manages (eventually) to turn into a surprisingly thought-provoking sci-fi effort, even if most of your thought will go into plugging the myriad conceptual holes, some of which are wide enough to drop a planet into. It has enough slam-bang action (most accomplished without an overabundance of CGI, as I'm sure the actors' battered bodies can attest) to kick-start your attention between the slower passages. It's not a masterpiece of the genre by any stretch. An entertaining diversion on a Friday night? Absolutely.
For a film that tanked at the box office and garnered derision from Aeon Flux fans and critics alike, Paramount certainly went the extra mile to draw in the DVD buyer. This may be the best audiovisual transfer the Studio on Snowy Mountain has dished up in quite some time. The 2.40:1 anamorphic visuals are consistently clear, bright without harshness, and naturally color-balanced; a real challenge, given the cool color palette the film employed. The soundtrack simply rocks. All the depth of field and richness of sound you could possibly ask for is right here for the immersion, without overamping the bass tones or crashing the dialogue. Exceptional results.
Audio commentaries comes in two flavors here: Tepid and Apologetic. The Tepid track features headliner Charlize Theron and producer Gale Anne Hurd. Both chat about the film with the enthusiasm of college students queuing up for a final exam. We learn a fair amount about feature film production—assuming we manage to stay awake, which is not a foregone conclusion. The Apologetic track stars screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who devote most of their up-tempo efforts to making sure we know it was the studio, and not them, that screwed up the movie, if screwed up it indeed is. Both tracks are informative. Neither is much fun. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
Better use of your time could be applied to watching the five excellent featurettes included on the disc. All told, there's approximately an hour of solidly produced background material, ranging from the typically fluffy electronic press kit ("Creating a World: Aeon Flux") to the commonplace-but-still-interesting (the featurettes on location scouting, costume design, and stunts) to the unique (the three-minute interview with still photographer Jasin Boland provides some marvelous insight into a facet of the film's production and marketing processes one doesn't often think about). In a rare nod to quality, all five featurettes come equipped with subtitles.
Can't get enough trailers? In addition to the theatrical trailer for the film under consideration, Paramount includes previews for Mission: Impossible III, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, and the DVD release of yet another box set of South Park.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fans of the original Aeon Flux animated series are no doubt already aware that creator Peter Chung has vilified the motion picture version at every opportunity. (Chung's contempt for the film did not, it should be noted, prevent him from accepting a screen credit here, or the paycheck that surely accompanied said credit. Nor did it keep him from making at least a token appearance in the press kit featurette.)
It's the age-old question: Should an adaptation seek to exactly replicate its source material, or to find a way to make that material appropriate to the new medium? I tend toward the latter. After all, everyone acknowledges that The Wizard of Oz is one of the silver screen's greatest creations, but anyone who's read L. Frank Baum's book knows that the musical movie bears only a superficial resemblance to its source. Then again, Baum himself produced several stage plays and early films based on his work that deviated even further from the original. Apparently, he understood that different media allow for—even require—different methods and devices.
If only everyone understood that as clearly.
Viewed as a movie, Aeon Flux is competent enough. It showcases an eminently watchable star, muddles through a reasonably coherent plot, flashes some slick stunt work and special effects, and ends before the audience is begging for release. These days, you can't always expect that from a big-budget Hollywood film. On that basis, I recommend Aeon Flux for sci-fi genre fans who aren't already obsessive about the animated series on which it's based.
If you are thus obsessed, pick up the animated set instead, and spare your teeth some gnashing.
Not guilty, but the court notes the dissenting brief filed by creator Peter Chung and his legion of adherents. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Actor Charlize Theron and Producer Gale Anne Hurd
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