Friday, March 24, 2017

Future Imperfect - AEON FLUX

I like movies that are puzzles.  Not just in Mysteries, but across all genres.  Movies that explicitly spell out every twist and development can come off as patronizing.  Part of the fun for me is trying to fill in the details and make the connections, right or wrong, myself.  Having to figure it out can make for a more challenging and engaging experience.  The 2005 Sci-fi acid trip AEON FLUX tests the limits of this argument. 

The Capsule:
After 99% of the planet’s population dies of a virus in 2011 (dodged a bullet there, I only had a sinus infection that year), the survivors are herded into a giant city called Bregna.  For the last 400 years, Bregna has been ruled by the Goodchild Dynasty, founded by the guy who cured the virus (because scientists always get all glory).  Things are pretty good in Bregna, except Gestapo-like police sometimes kidnap/kill people for no apparent reason. A rebel faction called the Monican are sick of this shit, so they send their top assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) to kill the current chairman, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas).  Before she can take him out, she is shocked to discover she shares a mysterious connection to the man somewhere in her forgotten past.  The jumble of memories and emotions leaves her, and the audience, confused.  To unravel the truth, she will have to team up with the man she was sent to kill.  Standing in the way of the answers are hundreds of machinegun toting goons, lethal plant based security systems, and her one time partner, Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), who has hands for feet.  Believe me, I haven’t even scratched the surface of how weird this movie really is. 

I pride myself at being able to piece together—or just completely fabricate—some semblance of logic to the most convoluted sci-fi head scratchers.  This movie is so bugnuts insane, though, even I can’t make heads or tails or hand/feet out of parts of it.  This is partially because director Karyn Kusama ambitiously sought to make a truly fantastic and unique future world.  Mostly, though, it´s because the studio fired  Kusama after she finished the movie and chopped it up to the point of utter incomprehension.  Kusama was brought back in to edit it once their version did not play well for test audiences, but she wasn’t allowed to return the film to her vision.  The result was a complete mess that appealed to no one.  Except me.

You know you are in trouble when the movie begins with a few screens of exposition, followed immediately by voiceover of more exposition.  I was thinking “Well, at least they didn’t throw in a flashback,” when I realized the first ten minutes was a flashback.  Even with all that explanation, much of the plot is still mystifying.  There is an intriguing, if ludicrous, sci-fi premise at its core, but it gets lost in all the muddled motivations, sudden betrayals, and allegiance switches. 

One of the biggest unsolved questions is why the government are such authoritarian assholes.  It’s a counterproductive stance to have.  The society of Bregna isn’t a grimy, worn out dystopia like in BLADE RUNNER.  Everything is clean and shiny.  The citizens seem to be free of class divisions, poverty, and crime.  In fact, the number one occupation in Bregna is apparently just milling about aimlessly.  The Goodchild regime and the police seem to be the only ones with an official function.  Why do you need to have a strangle hold on your population if everyone is so chill?  The only real strife in the city is completely manufactured by the government.  People just disappear sometimes, or get killed by the cops.  There is a secret reason behind it, but the ruling party doesn't even bother trying to cover things up.  No one in the city has a clue what exists outside of Bregna’s walls.  It wouldn’t be hard to explain why people are missing.  “Oh Ted?  Yeah, he moved to literally anywhere else on Earth.  He said he’d send you a postcard.”  Problem solved.

The price for the regime being so heavy handed comes in the form of a secret resistance movement.  They are called the Monicans, presumably after Monica Geller from Friends, judging by Charlize Theron’s haircut.  They have a complex covert operation involving spies, operatives, and assassins, all getting their orders from the Handler (Frances McDormand, looking unsure of what she is doing there).  But just like the government they fight against, the Monicans are very vaguely defined.  Their only goal seems to be to kill Trevor Goodchild, and then later Aeon because she goes rogue.  The government paints them as the major, and possibly only, threat against their rule, but we never see why.  It’s all very elliptical.  The government goes after the Monicans because they fight back, and the Monicans fight back because the government goes after them.

No matter how much of a mess the plot is, there are few things that tickle my crazy sci-fi heart.  One is the gusto with which the filmmakers embrace the absurd future technology.  This is not like ALIEN or even BLADE RUNNER, where the technology is basically identifiable.  Okay, that’s a scanner, that’s a flamethrower, that’s a flying car, got it.  AEON FLUX is like Alice in Futureland.  Things don’t have contemporary correlations.  Government buildings are protected by gardens with hanging papayas that shoot poison darts and blades of grass are actual blades.  The Monicans communicate by using something like a telepathy pill that links their minds together in a virtual meeting hall.  Sort of a mental Skype call.  

Most stuff made sense in function, if not form.  Aeon leaves around a bunch of explosive ball bearings that come rushing to her like trained mice when she whistles.  She can peel off bits of her skin and use them like Band-Aids to close other people’s wounds.  Data is stored in liquid.  Some shit I have no clue about.  She finds this, um, wearable robotic squid in Trevor’s study that either teleported her to a lab or changed the study into a lab, or used a dimensional overlay to… I have no idea.  It made the fight scene more dynamic, so I’ll just go along with it.

Oh, and there’s a part where the Handler gives Aeon a map transferred through pollen coming out of a flower she produces from her mouth.  Because what else is she going to do, give her a piece of paper?  This is the future, damn it.

I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t go all out with it.  There are still basic things you can recognize, like tables and stairs and umbrellas.  Give me chairs growing out of the backs of large turtles, or thermostats that you control by licking.  

The movie does highlight the future of fashion, though.  Aeon is introduced in stylish Business Dominatrix chic, complete with a sheer head stocking.

She also has a negligee made from strings of beads, which seems like it would be difficult to sleep in.   

The best outfit goes to Pete Postlethwaite, who plays a ghost dressed like a cannoli with arms.  He lives in a giant jellyfish blimp. 

The design team put a lot of work into this movie.  Or a lot of drugs.

Compared to all the crazy shit constantly parading across the screen, the actual actors can seem a bit lost.  Theron puts forth a solid effort.  Aeon is no Furiosa by any stretch, but Theron gives her a similarly steely determination and supreme confidence.  Her combination of elegance and physicality makes her a believable super assassin.  The fights are what you would expect for the mid 2000’s, lots of quick cuts and close ups.  The emphasis is more on acrobatics, much like in the original MTV cartoon the movie is based on.  Aeon is constantly diving, swinging, or flipping over somethingShe never just walks into a room when she can do a flying leap into one.  

Kusama creates a very female focused world without being overt about it.  Bregna has outgrown sexism the way it outgrew many of the old social ills (except fascism).  No one underestimates or patronizes Aeon because she is a woman.  While the majority of the government council is male, including Trevor’s brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller, who we immediately identify as the real villain because he says nefarious things like “we can’t give them the luxury of hope”), the movie is filled with women in positions of power.  Most of the Monicans are women, as is Trevor’s formidable head of security, Freya (Caroline Chikezie).  The longest, most elaborate fight sequences are Aeon against Freya and then Sithandra.  The faceless male troopers can't last more than a few seconds against her.  Don't even start with the aristocratic fops on the council.  Women are the more formidable force in this town.

I would love to see Kusama’s original cut.  I have the feeling it would make much more sense while retaining the crazy bits.  I’d even like to see the studio’s version to see how they stuffed all this into 70 minutes (the theatrical version felt rushed at 93).  As it stands, the current cut is a fascinating vision of unbound ambition hamstrung by studio interference.  Unsurprisingly, the compromised product did not do well at the box office, and we did not get an AEON FLUX 2.  That didn't stop Kusama, who continues to direct diverse and intriguing work, such as the exquisite THE INVITATION, and an incredibly creepy segment of the all female directed horror anthology, XX.   As for AEON FLUX, it can be appreciated for its wild concepts and gorgeous visuals.  No matter what you think of the movie, it has a woman with hands for feet.  Where else are you going to get that?

C Chaka

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