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Aeon Fans Fluxed Over By Paramount

I intentionally avoided reading reviews of Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron before viewing it last night. In retrospect, it was a good choice. Had I read even the smallest sampling of reviews, I probably would have spared myself the trouble. But that would have deprived me of the opportunity to write this review. So I'll call it even.

Despite not seeing any reviews, my expectations were fairly low from the start. Aeon Flux's beginnings on MTV's Liquid Television show, as well as its run as a series in its own right, marked it as an avant garde work. It regularly flouted narrative traditions, featured confusing and sometimes disturbingly adult themes, and flat-out refused to provide a neatly wrapped up explanation of what you had just seen. It not only challenged conventions of storytelling, it also challenged the audience to question themselves-- about why they like it (or dislike it) and what we actually mean when we say "story".

This is not the stuff of Hollywood films. It is no longer the stuff of MTV, if it ever was. And in the pursuit of what one can only assume were purely financial goals-- goals almost assuredly to go unattained unless they involve tax writeoffs-- Paramount made a live-action adaptation of Aeon Flux while specifically choosing not to involve Aeon's creator, Peter Chung:

Chung's input didn't factor into that large-scale effort. Other than a few script notes he passed on to the filmmakers — notes he claims that they "really didn't pay that much attention to" — Chung was not a part of the production. In fact, he actually had different hopes for the property.

"I wanted to make an animated feature. That's what I lobbied for. I wasn't really sure if the fans of the show wanted to see a live-action version. I think [MTV's] thinking was, 'We're not going to just make a movie that's for fans of the show. We want to really open this up to a wider audience.' I guess they figured that live action was the way to do that."

From TVGuide.com

The questions that leap first and foremost to the mind of an Aeon Flux fan are answered here. Why wasn't this animated? Chung wanted it, Paramount didn't. Was it to save money? Perhaps, but unlikely. The film reportedly cost between $55 and $75 million dollars, almost none of which can be seen on the screen. Despite evidence to the contrary, not only does the film not look that good, but it looks nothing at all like the animated serial on which it is based:

In the upcoming film, Aeon is played by Charlize Theron, and in answer to the two key questions certain to emanate from the fanboy quadrant: yes, and yes — her short, jet-black hair and her skin-tight, jet-black bodysuit have made the transition from Chung's remarkable small-screen animation to the big-budget, live-action theatrical release with nary a change.

From MTV

This person: A) has never seen Aeon Flux the animated series, B) has never seen Aeon Flux the movie, C) saw a version of Aeon Flux the movie far superior in production value to what was actually released, D) is blind, or E) is lying.

In no way let the fact that the above text is hosted on MTV's servers impact your answer to the above question. I'm assuming that Ben Cosgrove is blind, as are his compatriots Larry Carroll and James Montgomery, who provided "additional reporting". If this were not so, surely each of them-- or indeed any of them-- would have noticed that the flat black fabric with which Theron is clothed for the majority of the movie in no way resembles the attire of Aeon in the animated series. The lustrous, almost ultraviolet look of the animated series-- something that looks like a cross between leather and PVC-- is nowhere to be seen on the big screen. Most of Aeon's outfits look like a child's Halloween costume. One half expects to see her break out a pair of cat ears at any moment. And the hairdo? Don't even start.

These are not the only details in the Aeon Flux movie that not just different from the animated series, but so vastly different in word and spirit that it is difficult to imagine them being related at all. It is as if Paramount took a group of writers, locked them in a dark room with copies of the animated series, but gave them enough time to view only a small portion of them all, and then required them to write their notes about the series in crayon on the back of index cards. These index cards, out of order, were then handed to a completely different group of people, who then went on to make this film.

The screenwriters practically admit this themselves, in MTV's own promotional materials. It's as if they know that the film they've made is not Aeon Flux. It isn't even Aeon Flux Lite. It's Charlize Theron cosplaying Aeon Flux through a tired screenplay that at its very heart is something the animated Aeon Flux series never was and the animated Aeon Flux character always refused to be: conventional.

"What Peter did with that show," Manfredi says, "and what he did with his animation was so unique that, in a sense, there was no way to make that into a live-action film. And so our goal, the whole time, was to make something that stands beside it, as a companion. The two visions complement each other."

With companions like this, who needs enemies? Having freed themselves from the obligation of even making a good faith effort to translate Aeon Flux to the silver screen, Paramount then went on to create a star vehicle for Theron.

That's how it feels; like a hollow star vehicle. Characters and themes from several different episodes are mixed and matched with reckless abandon and predictably dismal results. The writers seem to have confused the idea of being deep, which the series surprisingly was, with being confusing, which is what the film leaves us with.

The only time this film does break the rules, you wish it hadn't. "Show don't tell" gets a bullet to the head in the first few seconds, as the entire back story of Bregna gets spelled out in a way that never was in the shorts or the series, removing every bit of mystery from the agent's dystopian universe. The need to have explained what need not be explained-- what must not be explained-- consistently ruins the vision that ran through the original work. In its place, we get a second-rate remake of Logan's Run, a far better film, in which the last remainders of the human race cower inside their last walled city after the world was ravaged by a virus that destroyed most of the human population and left the remainder infertile, necessitating the constant replenishment through cloning, something that is not common knowledge but is quickly discovered by Aeon shortly after her sister, Una, is killed.

Una, of course, was a character from the series, most prominently in the epside Isthmus Crypticus. Except she wasn't Aeon's sister and died in a completely different manner. But nevermind.

It would only be normal, at this point, to assume that some of the negative reaction to the film, especially coming from self-avowed fans of the original series, is less an even-handed appraisal of the film and more a knee-jerk reaction to seeing any changes made to a beloved work. One might even begin to wonder if, even a scant ten years from the original show's release, a bit of nostalgia might be creeping in, imbueing the original with greater depth and quality than it actually had. Or else might might wonder that those at MTV and Paramount simply didn't understand the material they owned, and might be forgiven for thinking it was a simple action movie property and therefore adapted it as such.

Let's blow those assumptions right out of the water here and now with the words of Aeon Flux producer, David Gale:

The show, as you know, is built on a kind of an anti-narrative. It’s about questioning straightforward narrative. So what we talked about with Peter – Peter Chung was here for a set visit recently. We didn’t talk to him during the process but Karyn [Kusama, the director] and David talked to him for years now about this, where our ideal is that these two things exist as parallel worlds to each other. For us we’re really conscious of the responsibility you have when you try to adapt something that’s very special. The show itself is very special. A way to protect it is to do your own thing that tries to do justice to the thought and the feeling of the original, but you take it in such a new direction that the two things can exist on their own. The movie isn’t a bastardized version of the show. The movie is its own thing.

From CHUD.

So, right from the horse's mouth we get that Gale does understand what Chung's original work was about: deconstructing the idea of narrative. He knows that some fans are going to hate it. He knows, in effect, that this is a bastardized version of the show. He wants to escape having it labeled as such by calling it a completely separate work, but yet somehow still call it Aeon Flux.

Gale, if you didn't want us to call this out as bastardized, you shouldn't have put "Aeon Flux" in the title.

Of course, once the film has committed itself to being a throughly conventional spy thriller, it immediately starts to conflict with the few remaining vestiges of the Aeon Flux universe that remain. Such as, if Bregna is indeed the last remaining city.. where do the Monicans come from? The episode which shows rebellious Breen trying to escape to Monica has been discarded, but somehow the Monicans survive. How a band of rebels that are so secretive that they hold drug-induced rendezvous within their own minds can run about all wearing similar clothing is beyond comprehension. That part of Aeon Flux's style makes sense within Chung's original. Here it's just baffling, and not in a good way.

The Monica-Bregna conflict only got fleshed out when Flux transitioned from shorts to series. But just like the plot elements that Id Software added to Doom 3, for the transition to the screen, Hollywood just thinks it knows better:

Mtv gave Chung the opportunity to develop the character further with a ten episode series which aired in 1995. Here is where Aeon Flux was given a voice and became and interesting character. Initially she began as an expendable member of a resistance movement, but with her own series Chung made Flux an opportunist who was neither bad nor good. Her playground was not only Bregna, but the rival nation of Monica which existed just over the wall. Her episodic illegal crossings into each territory were deadly excursions inspired by Chung's experiences in North and South Korea. Aeon aided the side that served her needs and occasionally made a moral choice or two. Leather clad and nimble female saboteurs may seem like old hat after "The Matrix", but Chung's heroine is an obvious source of inspiration to many.

From Latino Review.

The Matrix's Trinity might owe much to Chung's Aeon, but the "wider audience" that Paramount is appealing to is going to see the shoe on the other foot, no doubt.

When the animated original transitioned from being short pieces to a half-hour series, there were changes that were made that were controversial. The originals were, for the most part, without dialogue. There was no plot thread that joined the shorts together, so no one story was sustained for as long as twenty-two minutes. Aeon Flux often died, either at the end of the short or sometimes much earlier.

The episodes of the series become something else; it became the story of two major characters, the rebellious Aeon Flux and the megalomaniacal dictator, Trevor Goodchild. But the series still made you question everything. Were they enemies, lovers, or both? Was Aeon a patriotic rebel, a vicious terrorist, or both? Was Goodchild a benevolent despot, a scientific genius, a lunatic-- or all three and more? The series became the story of the relationship between these two, embedded in layer upon layer of reversals, betrayals, revelations and self-realizations.

The film does away with all of that. The film's Trevor is a teddy bear. They go through the pretense of portraying him as the bad guy for about fifteen minutes before revealing that the real enemy is his brother. How original. The story becomes how Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild are going to revenge themselves on Trevor's brother for attempting to usurp the former's place and succeeding in killing the latter's sister, along the way discovering, as in Logan's Run, that the world outside the city is, in fact, livable, and that the human race is not, in fact, infertile, and that Aeon and Trevor's ancient ancestors were, in fact, husband and wife. That this last detail was also plundered from something suggested in the original series only adds insult to injury, as this revelation comes bereft of the many hours of intrigue that preceded it in the animated series.

In the series, Aeon and Trevor spend most of their time together physically at each other's throats, just on the edge of falling in love. During the film, they spend most of their time in each others' arms, on the edge of falling asleep, which puts most of the audience to sleep, and makes me want to put my hands around their throats.

The film similarly mines other items and themes from the series. Aeon's sometime co-conspirator, sometime rival Scaphandra, who lost her feet running a machinegun gauntlet surrounding one of Goodchild's lairs and had them replaced with hands, which she preferred, returns in the film, inexplicably renamed Sithandra. I'm told that at least for the Russian speaking audience, this makes at least some sense, as her original name sounds like a gender-bent version of the word for "spacesuit". What's more important here is that Scaphandra isn't given anything interesting to do with her modified manipulators except to pick up a gun with them once, and the gauntlet-running sequence that could have been lifted right from the series, shot for shot, is re-imagined in a way that makes it much less interesting.

For those who don't remember, that episode-- also the one that featured Trevor's cloning machine-- featured the lab protected by automatic guns that surveyed a wide expanse of labyrinthine concrete. Aeon can't make it in and out by herself; she needs Scaphandra's help to infiltrate it by distracting the guns. One of them moves at a time, quickly darting out and then finding cover. While the guns remained trained on the last moving target, the other one makes a run for some cover, and in this way, eventually the two make it across.

The film takes this simple concept and manages to screw it up. The automatic guns are still there, although now they're inexplicably reimagined into spike-firing fruit trees. And despite the fact that they open fire nearly as soon as the two agents appear, they are both always moving, even while Scaphandra uses her feet-hands (hand-foots?) to climb one of the trees and commandeer the deadly fruit to take out other nearby trees. What the rest of them are doing while she's doing this is unclear. A concept from the original series that was so simple as to be nearly idiot-proof clearly ran into a better bunch of idiots here.

The only thing memorable about this sequence is the only decent stunt, and the only frames that are at all evocative of the original character. At the end of the gauntlet, Aeon makes a nearly impossible leap, landing spread-eagle with her nose inches from some nasty-looking grass-like glass spikes. Scaphandra, having already come face to face (face to foot? Hand to foot?) with the sharp tendrils, leaps in at the last moment to pull her away. For that one brief second, Aeon's impossibly suspended body, inches from certain death (or at least disfigurement of Theron's pretty visage) reminded me of the contortions of the original Aeon. But the resemblance begins and ends there.

The film has clearly been dumbed down to reach not only a wider audience than what the original series appealed to, but to be more child-safe and get a PG-13 rating. The series' Flux was ruthless and amoral, even to the point of being willing to consider killing innocents to achieve her goals, even when her goal was nothing loftier than proving that no one can tell her what to do. If you don't believe me, watch The Purge from the original series-- what might be called Chung's adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, where Trevor implants those of his citizens he considers morally deficient with an artificial conscience he calls a Custodian. The episode shows you a range of moral choices made by Aeon in a variety of situations, and then gives her a chance to make one more in a game-show setting with Goodchild as the host. The trick is, we don't know at that point whether or not Aeon was implanted with a Custodian or not. And when the episode ends-- we still don't know!

There are no such moral dilemmas in the film. Flux is ordered to kill Goodchild, but fails to follow through, not because of any moral quandary, but because she can't shake the feeling that she knows him from somewhere. Of course, a reel later we realize the bad guy is really Trevor's brother, not Trevor, paving the way for the two to become both lovers and co-conspirators, free of any of the conflicts that made the show so interesting. It's as if the first act of Romeo & Juliet had ended with the Capulets and the Montagues allying themselves against a third family made up to order, and urging their rug rats to get hitched to seal the deal.

Utopia or Deuteranopia from the series features some of its more bizarre imagery, as Trevor has apparently kidnapped the rightful governor of Bregna, and with the help of a nameless device that seems to distort reality through vibration, is building what looks like a love-nest for himself and Aeon inside a red-curtained room he reaches by opening the Governor's chest with a device that looks like the key to a chastity built and crawling through.

All that remains of that in the film is the vibrating device, except here, it's used only to conceal the hidden laboratory that Trevor is supposedly using to help save the human race from infertility, an objective he somehow manages to pursue without an ounce of sexual chemistry between himself and the film's protagonist. The other problems with that scene are that the laboratory itself is concealed in a hidden library so secret that it opens up right in front of Aeon automatically when she walks over its entrance, and that the device that reveals the library's true nature as laboratory is hidden in plain sight; in fact, the device practically mugs her as soon as she touches it, as if begging to reveal its secret.

Once revealed, the lab itself looks like a half-dozen mail-order chemistry sets spread out over a single table. The entire lab is destroyed in a fight between Aeon and one of Trevor's henchwomen only minutes after she finds it. But later in the film, we still have to go back there for Trevor to retrieve his research-- only to find, of course, that his brother's henchmen have gotten there first and burned it all.

Once that's done, the film needs some other location to fixate on, which turns out to be the jellyfish-like zeppelin that floats over the city. Aeon sneaks aboard once to find that it's a repository for all the city inhabitants' DNA, and is used to recreate them through cloning after they die. Naturally, the first thing she wants to find out is where the reincarnation of her sister is. After she's assured herself that her sister is now safe and alive again, of course her next reaction is that she is supposed to be a nihilistic terrorist, so she has no choice but to destroy the entire cloning operation, which leads me to believe that the screenwriters have confused the word nihilistic with the word nonsensical.

The film climaxes, if that is the right word, with a hilarious shootout where Aeon Flux stands near-motionless, on low ground, in the center of a small garden, surrounded by conveniently masked attackers, all of whom fall prey either to her dual-wielded machine guns (which look like nothing so much as a ripoff of Halo 2's Master Chief with dual SMGs, despite the fact that she seems to fire only one of them at once) or to the sniper rifles of the other Monican rebels ensconced in the nearby towers, seemingly ready to assassinate Aeon and Trevor. At the last moment, a tearful appeal from Aeon convinces Scaphandra and the other Monicans to off Trevor's brother instead. In the ensuing firefight, despite the advantages of distance, height, and scoped weapons, each of the snipers is picked off in turn, the last by Trevor's brother in his dying moments, with a rocket launcher. Meanwhile, the much easier target-- Aeon herself, armed with only two measly spray-and-pray weapons and inexplicably still for long periods of time-- escapes unharmed. Suspension of disbelief doesn't come close to covering it. This requires you to check your brain at the door, Doom-style.

One can make an argument that at times, the original animated series opted for style rather than substance, and only had a chance within 22 minutes to hint at themes it couldn't truly explore in that format. Aeon Flux the movie cuts through that Gordian knot easily by failing to have either.

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