December 4th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Review: Aeon Flux the movie

(You get a two-fer tonight. Or maybe more. I didn't want to lose my train of thought, but I also want to plug a couple of things.)

A lot of people went into the movie Pleasantville thinking that they knew what movie they were going to be seeing, and were dead wrong. What they thought they were paying their ticket price to see was a big-budget version of the short-lived Nick at Nite TV series, "Hi Honey, I'm Home," where we plunk real modern characters into Father Knows Best so we can poke fun at all the ways in which 50s family sitcoms are stupid and therefore funny. What they got, instead, was this lyrical, deeply emotional, very heart-felt and intellectual piece on all of the ways in which it's better to be a real person, to break out of stereotypes and expectations, and how that reality is better than any sanitized fantasy. Since they were expecting a light, silly, summer comedy, they picked up on the couple of moments of comic relief, and thought those were the only good parts of the movie. Why? Because the rest of the "jokes" just weren't funny. So they hated it. Me, I ate it up with two spoons, and I think it's one of the ten or so best movies I've ever seen in my life.

People, especially movie critics, are walking into Aeon Flux expecting to see a soft-core pornographic Hong Kong action flick. They then bewail the fact that there's no real porn, and hardly any Hong Kong action-flick fighting scenes. They're criticizing the one scene that comes closest to soft-core porn for being really tame, and they're criticizing the fight scenes for not being over-the-top enough, and they're criticizing the remaining 90% or 95% of the movie for not being soft-core porn or Wu-sha high-wire action film stuntwork. And in the process, they're not even seeing the movie that's right in front of them.

Let me make something really clear, up front. I loved the original Aeon Flux animated short films that ran on MTV's show Liquid Televison. I admired the eroticism and the stylized art, and I laughed myself silly all the way through the action sequences. I thought they were great fun. I was less enthused about the more-pretentious second season. I didn't bother with the spin-off series or the role-playing game sourcebook. But still, I really liked the original Aeon Flux. But when I saw the trailer for the live-action movie called Aeon Flux, I picked up instantly on the fact that this wasn't that cartoon. So I watched the trailer for its own self, asking not "is this the cartoon I used to like" but "is this going to be an interesting science fiction movie," and I thought that the early trailer looked really promising. So I was cautiously optimistic.

This was never going to be that cartoon turned into a movie. I have no doubt whatsoever that whoever optioned the rights actually thought, briefly, that they could do just that. Then they realized that even if they used CGI to edit out all the naughty bits, as they obviously did with Charlize Theron's one topless scene in this movie, if they had made those original cartoons into a movie it would have gotten an inescapable MA rating. Not just for the costumes, but for the gore. So my guess is that somebody, who was tasked with making something "just like" Aeon Flux but without the perversity, the fetish wear, and the massive gore went through the cartoons and said to themselves, okay, if we take all of that out, what have we got left? Well, what we've got left is an awful lot of really arresting artistic images, and an amazing number of those make it into this movie. In that sense, while it is not even vaguely an adaptation of the original cartoons, there are dozens of moments of homage to the cartoon in these films.

You know what this is? This is the movie that Johnny Mnemonic and Minority Report both tried unsuccessfully to be: the first really, really great cyberpunk movie. Whoever wove those images together into a story put some real thought into it, and came up with a tremendously moving and deeply interesting premise, especially after the second plot twist when the movie really kicks into high gear. Speaking of plot twists, there are at least four of them, and I only saw maybe one of them and half of another coming. The art direction and set design are absolutely perfect, as is the very science fictionish costuming. The cybertech and biotech in it is absolutely amazing; it's worth seeing this movie just so your inner gadget freak can go, "Oooh, shiny, I want that!" over and over again. The acting is, well, serviceable. Nobody's going to win any Oscars here, but Charlize Theron more or less gets the character right, and actors playing the other two prominent characters that are part of the Monican underground are both a little wooden, a little underplayed, but OK. The actors playing the Goodchild brothers were given a lot more to work with, and both do a marvelous job with their characters.

Slate.com's reviewer, David Edelstein, pointed out in his column that Paramount chose not to screen the movie for critics, and there was a distinct dearth of advertising, and the movie opened on unusually few screens for a big budget picture. The obvious conclusion is that the studio lost all faith in the movie. As a result, hardly anybody outside of fandom has heard of this, and most people in fandom seem to be starting out predisposed to hate it. So you know what I smell here? A sleeper hit. It's going to take a long time, probably not until well after this movie comes out on DVD, for most people to realize that once you get past the fact that it's not a cross between a porno and a chop-suey flick, and look at it for what it is, what it actually is is the real, thoughtful science fiction movie that we've been asking for for the last five or ten years, and the faithful cyberpunk-premised movie that we've been asking for for twenty.