At the end of this review, Judge Geoffrey Miller dies.
"That which does not kill us makes us stranger."—Trevor Goodchild
After a long wait, it's finally here: a definitive collection of the cult classic TV series Æon Flux. Created by writer/director/artist Peter Chung (Reign: The Conqueror, the "Matriculated" segment of The Animatrix), this surreal animated head trip, starring the titular female secret agent in a futuristic dystopia, is far from easy viewing. Nonetheless, its unique animation style, inventive action sequences, and twisty narrative structures have rightfully won over a hardcore legion of fanatics. Æon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection contains practically every last bit of Æon Flux ever drawn (and then some), lovingly restored and compiled in a beautifully packaged box set.
Facts of the Case
In the future, there are two bordering countries, Bregna and Monica. Bregna is an authoritarian city-state, superficially pretty but ruled with an iron fist. Monica is the complete opposite, more an anarchic collective living in slums than anything else. Æon Flux is an agent for Monica—or at least that's what we're led to believe. Her enemy (and occasional lover) is Trevor Goodchild, the control-freak leader of Bregna. Æon's missions often take her deep into Breen territory; unfortunately for her, the missions usually end with her demise.
The mid-'90s were a strange time for MTV. After passing the decade mark, the network that was once the rebellious new kid on the block now found itself an uneasy member of the establishment. On top of that, the photogenic New Wave mannequins and hair metal rockers that the channel enjoyed such success with in the '80s were being replaced by grunge and alternative artists that appealed to a completely different audience. So the network was forced to mix its schedule up, adding hip, edgy new programming, even if it wasn't strictly related to music. It was in this environment that a decidedly unconventional show like Æon Flux could flourish.
The first episodes of Æon Flux were on Liquid Television, a late-night collection of experimental animated shorts that also introduced the world to a couple of dim teenage metalheads called Beavis and Butthead. These segments, roughly two to five minutes in length, are notable for being almost entirely bereft of dialogue. After a pilot episode (split into six parts) and five additional shorts, it was picked up for a run of 10 standalone half-hour episodes.
Even though they're tucked away as "special features" on the third disc, the Liquid Television shorts are the way to start with Æon Flux. The pilot, stitched into a cohesive 12-minute whole from its original segments, follows Æon on an assignment to assassinate a Breen higher-up. At the same time, a deadly virus has infected the complex she's infiltrated. Even though she doesn't speak a word, her personality comes across loud and clear: She's clever, dangerous, and sexy—a dominatrix clad in leather. She mows down hundreds of Breen guards in seconds, until they pile up in a foot-deep pool of blood. She's also accident-prone, carelessly stepping on a nail that ultimately does her in.
The series of shorts that followed the pilot are the most experimental episodes in the Æon Flux cannon, gleefully toying with the original concept, stretching and bending it like silly putty. In the first short, "War," Æon dies within the opening seconds; the rest of the episode jumps from one character to the next, all of them doomed to fall at the hands of the subsequent protagonist. "Tide" is a Möebius strip that collapses in on itself, as the same actions repeat themselves then disintegrate.
The half-hour episodes significantly change the formula of the previous installments, and not just because of the addition of Denise Poirier as Æon's voice. Æon no longer dies at the end every time now, for one thing, although the endings are rarely happy. Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee), once merely a nameless adversary, is now the most important character besides Æon (and the only other regular). He shares a complex relationship with Æon: Despite of (or perhaps because of) their completely opposing personalities, they are wildly attracted to each other. The tension between the two—whether they are trying to kill each other or get into each other's pants—drives this incarnation of the show. She's chaos; he's order.
Not every one of the half-hour episodes adds up to much more than an intricate setup and intriguing ideas, but the best ones deliver the rush of the earlier shorts' action with deeper, more ambitious plots. "The Purge" is a deliriously carnival-esque twist on A Clockwork Orange. Trevor Goodchild creates The Custodian, a wire skeleton that can give someone an "artificial conscience." A thug that Æon is chasing after has it forcibly "installed" (it's pushed in through the bellybutton), then Æon steals it and puts it in herself. Another standout, "Chronophasia," deconstructs time, space, and reality in ways reminiscent of Philip K. Dick.
Right from the beginning, when it's hinted at the end of the pilot that Æon has a foot fetish, there's a kinky sexual undercurrent to the series. Æon isn't shy: She has a voracious appetite and likes it rough. Trevor has far more perverse predilections. In "Thanatophobia," he manipulates a woman with a spinal injury to orgasm through a hole in her back that normally holds an implant. He even has a taste for bestiality, developing affections for a bird-like creature. Bondage and sadomasochism are running themes; it seems like everyone in the universe has an interest in them. Of course, since this was originally a basic cable series, nothing too explicit is shown, although it's definitely not for the prudish.
There's also an almost Cronenberg-esque obsession with bodily fluids and grotesque creatures. Disturbing medical procedures are common, like when a man "gives birth" (via cesarean section) to a God-like entity, or a poor woman gets her legs amputated as a sick form of punishment for trying to escape Bregna. "Ether Drift Theory" takes place in the Habitat, a zoo/lab that's Trevor's pet project. The fantastically hideously creations inside include clamoring mutant monkeys and giant mechanical insects. A spider-like alien that chases Æon in the "Leisure" short is as terrifying as it is stunning.
The animation and art direction is an utterly original mix of the darker side of anime with American underground comics. Every frame, drawn by hand, is filled to the brim with attention to detail and cinematic panache. The characters are tall, almost impossibly lanky, with hyper-realistic facial features. Although the world is a bleak one, there's plenty of color. The architecture of Bregna, where most of the series takes place, is bathed in bright hues of orange and yellow, mixing classic European and Asian styles with a sleek modern sheen. When it was first aired, nothing like the show had ever seen before (and nothing similar has been seen since, besides Chung's other work), yet it's immediately cohesive and fully formed.
Æon Flux looks and sounds better than ever on DVD. The video transfer is clear and vibrant, and the audio, featuring composer and sound designer Drew Neumann's superb ethno-techno score, is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0. The third disc is devoted to extras. Besides the aforementioned Liquid Television episodes (which the set would have been incomplete without), there are production art galleries, a few other promos by Peter Chung (made for MTV and Honda), and a couple of featurettes on the history of the series and the various devices >Æon uses throughout the show. In addition, there is a reel of non-Æon Flux shorts from Liquid Television. It's a great reminder of the days when MTV sought to push the envelope of pop culture rather than homogenize it, even if the included segments ("The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo," "The Art School Girls of Doom") aren't among the show's finest moments. There are also informative commentaries by Peter Chung and assorted cast and crew for most of the episodes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the process of compiling this set, Peter Chung took some liberties with the source material. The original animation has been augmented with new digital color correction, blurring, and lighting; the voice actors have been brought back to add some new rewritten lines to "bring characterization into better continuity." The visual changes are mostly subtle and seamless; in fact, it would be hard to argue that they aren't an improvement. The new voices blend in well, but they reek of unnecessary revisionism. Most viewers probably won't notice; hardcore fans and purists, however, might not appreciate the changes.
Untangling Æon Flux's web of philosophy, obscure symbolism, and ambiguous plot resolutions can be daunting, especially for first time viewers. Anyone looking for clear answers or traditional stories would be best advised to steer clear. Æon Flux is occasionally too artsy and pretentious for its own good, but it's also smart enough to avoid self-parody. (Carefully deployed bursts of humor help defuse the self-indulgence.) Yes, some will take issue with the "Director's Cut" tinkering, but it's hardly "Han shoots first" territory. For fans of the show, Æon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection is a must-buy. Lovers of cerebral science fiction looking for something out of the ordinary will also find much to enjoy.
Not guilty. It's too bad it took the upcoming film adaptation (which looks pretty awful, to be honest) for it to be released.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Creator Peter Chung and the Original Cast and Crew
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