State of Flux
You can say what you like about the big Hollywood studios (and I frequently have in the past), but sometimes you just can't help but feel a bit redundant. Mainly because they tend to do such a superb job of exposing themselves to ridicule and thus saving critics the job. In particular this week I am thinking of their behaviour towards the younger actor of the distaff persuasion, particularly those with Oscar form. It has become a truism that if you are a young and attractive female actor, your best (maybe even only) chance of picking up a gilt doorstop is to ugly yourself down a bit and put some weight on. This is such aberrant behaviour as far as la-la land is concerned, that they can't help but be impressed. (All this goes double for actors who used to be models.)
Of course, now you've won your Oscar, and thus established your credentials as a serious and grown up artiste, it falls to the studios to find you a starring vehicle in which you can further exercise your talents. Which, as a young and attractive woman, usually translates as 'comic book and/or cartoon adaptation featuring heroine in catsuit doing kung fu'. It happened to Halle Berry with Catwoman and now it's happened to Charlize Theron in Karyn Kusama's AeonFlux, based on a fairly obscure MTV animation1.
Ominously, to begin with it looks like Kusama's film has been assembled solely using material from the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches. Following a global catastrophe, the survivors of the human race have retreated to the walled city of Bregna where they have constructed a utopia of sorts. But after four hundred years of benevolent dictatorship by the Goodchild dynasty, dissent is growing, fomented further by increasing numbers of disappearances. The rebels' top agent is Aeon Flux (Theron), a... er, well, we don't learn that much about her other than her fondness for doing gymnastics while wearing a catsuit. At least I think we don't. I may have been distracted. After her activities seemingly lead to the death of a loved one, Aeon is delighted to learn that her next mission is to penetrate the HQ of the ruling board and eliminate the big kahuna, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas). Yes, this 25th century world is ruled by a man named Trevor Goodchild. This may be an exotic name to Los Angeles-based creatives, but to me he just sounds like a round-the-world yachtsman. So off Aeon Flux somersaults, sidekick Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo, who knows a thing or two about dodgy cartoon adaptations) in tow, firmly intent on knocking off Trevor. Well, in the end she does, although perhaps not in the way the rebel mastermind (Frances McDormand in a bizarre ginger fright wig) was thinking of. But there's more going than that (isn't there always?). Trevor has a secret. So does Aeon, though she doesn't know it yet. Sithandra doesn't have a secret, but following some cosmetic surgery she does have a tendency to get veruccas on her thumbs.
It all seems to go completely bonkers after a while, but even the most eccentric plot developments tend to be accompanied by shots of a strapping ex-model in a catsuit running away from the camera. I found this strangely... well, soothing isn't perhaps the right word. Bold choices in costume design and art direction mean that for the most part the movie stays engaging after a rather wobbly start (we get a set of captions that set the scene, which are then followed by a voiceover which sets the scene all over again - one or the other would have done). The film scores big points for its willingness to show a truly technologically advanced future without bothering to explain how everything works: the city's main surveillance centre resembles a fountain, for example, and there's a laboratory that seems to exist in another dimension. There are plenty of fun gadgets, too: the rebels receive their instructions by pill (eat the pill, get the message telepathically), while Aeon herself is equipped with a set of exploding robot ball-bearings. There's a nice set piece where Theron and Okenodo have to get to a high-security installation through a garden where the plants themselves have been engineered as anti-personnel weapons. (I was sorry not to see the machine from the cartoon which licked the soles of Aeon's feet at the end of particularly gruelling missions.)
Sadly, though, the film can't sustain this level of inventiveness - at least, not while telling the fairly routine tale it eventually opts for. To be fair, the secret of the city comes as a reasonable surprise, but from this point on it all gets a bit pedestrian, with avant-garde techno-weirdness replaced by people running around firing automatic weapons at each other. It stays just about watchable, though. Karyn Kusama does a pretty decent job, but this isn't up to the standard of her last movie, Girlfight, which brought Michelle Rodriguez to the brink of stardom and told the female-boxer story better than Million Dollar Baby did.
All the same, one would have hoped a woman director might have dodged some of the pitfalls an action movie fronted by a woman tend to fall into. These mainly revolve around the presentation of the main character - it seems than when you tell a group of male screenwriters to depict a confident, independent, capable lead female character, the words which actually hit their ears are 'man with breasts', because that's what Aeon Flux comes across as most of the time. And as soon as she meets Mr Right - well, it's not a complete about-face for her, but a lot of her ruthless steely resolve goes right out of the window. Aw, bless.
However, it does seem a bit pointless to go all Rev Fem on a movie which has after all been made by the film wing of MTV (not to mention rather hypocritical given how much I've been going on about Charlize Theron in a catsuit). This is a reasonable enough movie, if a bit austere and derivative in parts. And if nothing else, Karyn Kusama has manged to make a film about cloning which isn't an exact duplicate of every other one on the subject we've had recently. And that's a neat trick.