Bad Movies We Love: Aeon Flux
While Jennifer's Body reaffirms the status of its leading lady Megan Fox (yes, she can act, at least in this role!) and writer Diablo Cody (Juno and The United States of Tara weren't flashes in the pan, honest to blog!), the person with the most to win or lose is perhaps director Karyn Kusama. After her indie debut Girlfight was praised to the heavens, she was KO'd by her follow-up, the 2005 flop Aeon Flux. Kusama's long since written it off as studio meddling, but I thought this week it'd be the decent thing to take another look at what went wrong -- and perhaps a little bit right -- with the live-action adaptation of the beloved 1990s anime.
It doesn't take a genius to parse that Aeon Flux wasn't Kusama's final cut. Any movie that starts with a text crawl and relies on intrusive voiceover smacks of post-production interference (cf: Blade Runner). Such a one-two intro tells us that a) in 2011 a virus killed 99 percent of the world's population; b) that the 5 million survivors have huddled in the nicely landscaped city of Bregna for 400 years and; c) that it's now the year 2415 and people are haunted by sorrows they can't name while a rebel group's causing trouble for the benign dictatorship run by the Goodchild dynasty.
Mostly what the opening moments really tell us is that Charlize Theron, back in the commercial sphere after winning an Oscar for Monster, has lost all that serial-killer weight and straggly hair. She's eye-catching. Quite literally -- she catches a fly with her eyelid in the opening. That's because she's Aeon Flux, superstar assassin of the radical group known as the Monicans. Hearing the name phonetically gives pause. Monarchans? If they're all about people power, why the pro-royalty sounding name? Or are they Monacons, the descendants of the world's smallest principality-monarchy? The most troubling conclusion is that an episode of Friends survived the viral apocalypse and these guys have been inspired by Courtney Cox's fair-minded if high-strung example of humanity.
Anyway, Goodchild overthrow is their aim -- after anonymity, that is. "As long as Monicans can be seen, we can be targeted," says another Oscar winner, Frances McDormand (pictured at right), as wild-haired radical guru Handler, who appears to her agents in a hallucination in what appears to be the Church Of Cheap Trick. This so-called desire for invisibility is odd, given Aeon Flux gets around amid the conservatively dressed Bregnan population in fetish veil and thigh-split leather skirt. Nothing says inconspicuous like a grieving B&D mistress. Especially when she does vital techno-transfer via tongue kiss with a stranger dressed like a fan of My Chemical Romance V3.5.2.
To cut a long story short, turns out that Trevor Goodchild, Bregna's boss, came up with a cure for the "Industrial Disease" back in the day. Alas, it made everyone sterile. So he and his brother cloned people as they died and put the babies back into circulation -- and have been doing it ever since, their cloned selves included. Their method of hiding the evidence of such DNA shenanigans? Concealing all the evidence in "The Recticle," a blimp that sounds and looks like a diseased organ and which floats above Bregna non-stop. That it's never once piqued the citizens' curiosity in, oh, four centuries is similarly up there. That it's staffed by Pete Postlethwaite, styled like an old penis in what appears to be a giant condom, means that he should've actually won the Oscar rather than just been nominated if he wanted a better role.
The twist is that Trevor's actually a good guy and Aeon is the clone of his long-dead love. Trevor's old-style goodness shouldn't be much of a surprise, given his anodyne name raises an odd laugh every time it's said amid a roll call of Aeons, Orens, Sithandras, Unas, Inaris and Girouxes.
Call Aeon Flux a lot of names but it ain't boring to look at. Or boring. Frequent collaborators, production designer Andrew McAlpine and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, create a weird organic world, and Kusama has a thing for eyes and ovoids that's intriguing. But often the style's at odds with the story and star concerns, as much a function of editing and marketing as anything else.
And that's kinda funny. Sophie Okenedo's Monican agent (that'd be Sithandra) has had "modifications" to give her hands for feet. Very useful for acrobatics, but again not so much for the whole invisibility thing. Aeon has refused such procedures because, as she says, "I like my shoes," in this case her combat-ready wedge-heels. (Her sleep-time grief-wear after the death of her sister -- that'd be Una -- consists of a skimpy beaded outfit clearly designed to ensure nobody thought Ms. Theron used a body double). Together the gals infiltrate the Citadel's defences, which include pine-cone thingies that fire poison darts and spring real-sharp blades of grass, but are apparently minus an actual alarm. When the ladies come to loggerheads, Aeon, after a Girlfight-Jennifer's Body-style bitchbrawl, trusses Sithandra and leaves her at the bottom of a pond breathing out of a straw -- for one-third of the movie.
For completists: Along with the frenemies-who-can't-finish-each-other off vibe, this shares with Jennifer's Body: a lot of tongue stunts, an anti-heroine who roots around in her own flesh, crazy-eye stuff and Cronenberg-style organic blades, the name Nikolai, high-kickin' girl action, and a strange interlude with mystical balls (not in the genital sense). And perhaps the whole Aeon-identity situation -- "I don't know who I am" -- ain't too far removed from Jennifer's possessed killer babe. The big difference is Aeon Flux is kinda jello of Jennifer's Body total saltiness, to put it in Diablo-speak.
Aeon Flux, which cost upwards of $60m to make -- factor in another 20 for marketing, at least -- opened on December 2, 2005 with a resounding $12.7m and 10 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was first in its slot in a dud weekend and eventually took $25.9m, capping off five months that'd also seen Serenity, Doom and the not dissimilar The Island tank against high expectations. Happily, it also spelled the end of the disasters-come-in-three spectacle of seeing Oscar winners Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and Charlize Theron each almost immediately try to sell themselves as fanboy action figures. Theron was reportedly paid eight figures to play Aeon.
Peter Chung, creator of the original cult anime from the mid-1990s, eventually spoke his mind about the film. And did so in a fashion that was, for Hollywood, unusually candid: "With apologies to both Phil and Matt [Hay, Manfredi, the scriptwriters, next doing Clash Of The Titans!], who have publicly been effusive in their praise for the show -- the movie is a travesty. I was unhappy when I read the script four years ago; seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theater made me feel helpless, humiliated and sad. I know it's bad form for me to voice my disapproval in a public forum, but it's silly for me, of all people, to continue playing dumb, considering most of the critics have voiced their disapproval using every mocking and condescending expression possible. I know that the studio made a lot of cuts against the wishes of the writers and director."
That, as Kusama has maintained, is the case. Which raises the question, Paramount: Why not Aeon Flux on Blu-ray as a Director's Cut? The existing version has 30 minutes that's disavowed by its creators. It'd certainly look good. It couldn't make much less sense. Until then, it's gotta be a Bad Movie We Love.
Michael Adams is the author of the upcoming comic memoir Showgirls, Teen Wolves, And Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest To Find And Watch The Worst Movie Ever Made (HarperCollins)