‘Aeon Flux,’ a live-action movie based on an MTV cartoon, winds up seeming a little flat

January 26, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 26, 2018

Aeon Flux was an animated series that ran for four years on MTV in the early 1990s. I can’t recall ever having watched a full episode, although I’m sure I caught snippets. I do have a distinct — albeit incomplete — memory of being in a club in Chapel Hill in the mid–oughts and staring at a TV that was silently playing installments of the show.

I never figured out much about the program beyond the basics. The title character, I knew, was a lithe, lethal spy in an oppressive futuristic society. Her foil was the unctuous dictator Trevor Goodchild, who seemed to shift abruptly from being Flux’s assassination target to being her lover and/or person who reveals important truths about Flux herself and the society in which they live.

The 2005 movie Aeon Flux brought the property into movie theaters with a live-action adaptation. I’ve no idea how faithful it is to the original series; for what it’s worth, animation writer/director Peter Chung (the main character designer for the long-running Rugrats TV series that debuted in 1993) is credited here for “characters.”

As for why this film exists — well, I’m at something of a loss, even after having seen it. Audiences evidently felt the same way: The picture’s box office haul of $52 million fell about $10 million short of its production budget.

It’s not that Aeon Flux is bad, per se; it’s just that the movie isn’t really unusual, intriguing or exciting enough to justify its existence. As the title character, South African actress Charlize Theron (Atomic BlondeMad Max: Fury Road) seems to be taking the role much more seriously than it deserves. But even her intensity doesn’t carry the enterprise; nor do her acrobatic stunts and form-fitting outfits, which are admittedly rather impressive.

The story takes place in the walled city of Brega in the 25th century, long after a plague called “the industrial disease” wiped out most of humanity in 2010. (Fake news.) The seemingly idyllic haven was established by Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas); he, or at least someone with that name, continues to preside over it.

Trevor faces dissension from both inside and outside the ruling council. Oren Goodchild (Jonny Lee Miller) has started to express concerns about whether the letter of the law is being adequately enforced under his sibling. Meanwhile, a band of rebels have grown dissatisfied with certain problems that they have difficulty describing precisely; chief among them are the disappearances of a number of residents of Brega and the generalized feeling that something just isn’t right.

This group, called the Monicans, is laying the groundwork for armed revolution. Their top operative is Aeon Flux, who seems to devote all her time to dressing in skin-tight clothing and subverting the surveillance state. (Why isn’t she immediately identified by the authorities as a Monican? Search me, reader.)

After Aeon’s sweet, innocent sister Una (Amelia Warner) is killed by the police for supposedly being a Monican — something that obviously can’t be true, because Una seems to devote all her time to being sweet, innocent and neutral — a rebel known as Handler (Frances McDormand) dispatches Aeon to kill Trevor. The agent is more than willing to comply.

Aeon and an associate (Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda) infiltrate Brega’s heavily guarded capital complex in the movie’s most over-the-top sequence. (“Stay off the grass,” the four-handed Sithandra cautions Aeon in a groan-worthy quip after they stumble upon some deadly foliage.) But then Aeon, continuing on her own, encounters Trevor.

Here things become complicated. Trevor seems to know Aeon, and she him, although they’ve never met before. Consequently, she can’t bring herself to take his life.

A series of encounters, infiltrations and escapes follow as Aeon and Trevor, sometimes together and sometimes separately, start to unravel the dire truth behind the troubled existence of humanity’s last redoubt. One of the key pieces to the puzzle is held by Keeper (the late Pete Postlethwaite), who operates a mysterious modernistic hive that hovers over Brega.

Aeon, of course, is hunted not only by the government but by her former compatriots. Everything culminates in what’s meant to be a spectacular shoot-’em-up between the rebels, the government and Aeon. Sadly, although the cast is fine and the production design excellent, the budget isn’t quite enough to mount a convincing climactic battle, which comes off seeming a bit chintzy.

The real problem here, however, is that the live-action Aeon seems as two-dimensional as the cartoon on which she was based. Virtually the only things I can tell you about the protagonist is that she’s a deadly, acrobatic future Mata Hari; she’s vaguely dissatisfied with Brega; and she’s devastated by the death of her sister. That’s hardly enough to sustain a feature-length story, especially given that Aeon is by far the most developed character. The movie is also saddled by a theme that comes off as a little silly. (Because it involves a potential spoiler, I may discuss the theme in a separate post.)

The primary fault lies with Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, a writing team who scripted the Ride Along action-comedy series, the Clash of the Titans remake, the widely panned action-comedy R.I.P.D. and the well-received horror film The Invitation, among other works. Except for the climactic battle, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation) stages the proceeding smoothly and efficiently.

There’s plenty of eye candy in Aeon Flux, both in terms of the lead actress and the production, but there’s not much nourishment for the brain or soul. Other than fans of the source material, or enthusiasts for action heroines, serious viewers need not apply.

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