Æon Flux (2005, USA)
Director: Karyn Kusama
Written by: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Women in the crew: Martha Griffin and Gale Anne Hurd (producer); Plummy Tucker (editor); Karen Lindsay-Stewart and Laura Rosenthal (casting); Sarah Horton and Andreas Olshausen (supervising art director); Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (costumes); Natalie Beer (AD); Lyda Blank (2nd AD); Julie Cummings and Claudia Schwab (3rd AD); also across make-up, art, visual effects, and sound departments
Available to stream/rent/buy: https://www.justwatch.com/uk/movie/aeon-flux
This review contains **SPOILERS**
I put off writing the review for Æon Flux because it is the first one of the #WomenMakeSF movies that I really haven’t liked. I mean, I love Charlize Theron; I just watched The Old Guard for the second time because of how amazing she is as an action star. But this is not a great movie even if Theron is great in it.
I was excited to see Æon Flux as I really enjoyed Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) in all of its satirical feminist schlockiness. I am always happy to go into a screening with an open mind, especially if a film was panned on its initial release. My review of Tank Girl was based around the idea of the film being ahead of its time and unfairly eviscerated by critics, just as Jennifer’s Body was.
Æon Flux uneven and the plot is bunched up into the last quarter of the film. So you get to spend the first hour or so grasping around for a narrative, or even a slim explanation of WTF is going on. There were some excellent set pieces – the fight/escape with Æon (Charlize Theron) and Sithandra Monkey Feet (Sophie Okonedo) with the slicing blades of synthetic grass was gorgeous – but there wasn’t enough narrative to frame it effectively. I am usually against opening monologues voiceovers – neither Blade Runner or Dark City’s theatrical releases needed them despite studio insistence – however some top loading of plot would have been useful, even if the major plot twists about cloning and restricting natural birth were kept until later in the runtime.
So, the plot. Ish. It’s another pandemic-appropriate pick! 99% of the Earth’s population is killed by a deadly pathogenic virus in 2011. Æon Flux opens in 2415 where all of the surviving humans live together in a citadel called Bregna ruled by a congress of the scientist elite. The city is a seemingly idyllic utopia nestled in an apparently dystopian ravaged future Earth. Everyone in Bregna is ultimately revealed to be a clone from DNA that has been recycled for generations (but it has magically not degraded at all). The vaccine for the virus from 2011 made the human race infertile and to avert extinction cloning has been used to keep producing humans – who apparently retain memories of their previous incarnations (?) that emerge as nightmares. The head of the government Trevor (Marton Csokas), along with generations of his ancestors, has been working on reversing the effects of the virus/vaccine to allow for natural childbirth again. One of Trevor’s experiments, Una Flux (Amelia Warner), becomes pregnant, but in order to maintain the hierarchical status quo Trevor’s brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) has Una killed.
So, Æon. She is a warrior rebel as part of a secret organisation called the Monicans. Her sister Una (yes, that Una – but Æon doesn’t know they’re all part of a reproductive experiment) is killed and she goes on a secret mission to kill Trevor who is presented as a despot. The Monicans are led by the Handler (Frances McDormand) who is revealed to be in league with/been manipulated by Trevor’s brother Oren who has hidden the fact that ‘nature has corrected itself’ and that some of the women in Trev’s experiment have been able to get pregnant. Oren killed them all, deceiving and convincing the Monicans into maintaining his family’s reign over Bregna. Æon is also revealed to be the first clone of Trevor’s long dead wife Katherine whose DNA Oren believed had been destroyed. The Keeper (Pete Postlethwaite), another mysterious figure who monitors humanity post-pandemic, preserved Katherine’s DNA for a time when she could ‘return’ and save humanity (maybe, I think). Æon rejects her orders from the Handler, killing Oren and his acolytes, and destroys the Relical, an airship (obvs) that stores all the DNA samples. The DNA balloon ship crashes into the walls of the city revealing that the surrounding land is a lush green paradise. As Æon exclaims, ‘nature will find a way!’ Nature has healed itself and humans are the virus that need to be eradicated.
So, SCIENCE. As usual I watched this movie as part of a livetweet and viewing party with my parted-by-a-pandemic person Lyle (educational background in evolutionary biology amongst many many other things), and her neurobiologist husband. The BAD science did not help out with the poor pacing and lack of plot. Movie science doesn’t have to be perfect, it does however need to be sufficiently believable that my co-watchers aren’t getting irate about the misrepresentation of reproductive science and cloning technology. As I don’t conveniently have a background in science and my person does, I asked Lyle to write about where the science went wrong (highlighted in blue to show it is her addition). I found it interesting, I hope you do too.
In short: When we say “cloning”, we’re talking about a range of different reproductive technologies. Embryonic cloning is actually really common in fields such as livestock reproduction, and basically just refers to splitting a fertilised egg a few times, kind like artificial twinning. Somatic cell, or nuclear transfer, cloning, however, is much more difficult, inefficient, and expensive. Presumably, this is the method that has been used for many generations in Æon Flux: a person’s DNA (as present in somatic cells such as hair, blood, saliva, skin, etc.) has been preserved on the airship. To produce new offspring, they take the nucleus of one of these cells and place it in an emptied embryonic cell.
Except… Where are these embryonic cells coming from? The whole reason for all of this is the virus-induced infertility. Exactly what kind of infertility is it? Do women cease to produce viable eggs? Do men cease to produce viable sperm? Do fertilized eggs fail to implant? Are there miscarriages from damaged DNA or disrupted hormone cycles, or any of the dozens of other reasons such things happen? If women can produce eggs, and the nuclear DNA transferred into them is not somehow corrupt (as we must assume, since these clones are living to adulthood and beyond with no discernible genetic disorders), what exactly is the problem? And how much DNA do they have stored for each person? Surely they’re not making copies of copies of copies, using aged and potentially mutated somatic cells.
Then there’s the notion of “genetic memory” that somehow invades the clones’ dreams, a grotesque attempt to sciencify “past-life memories” and reincarnation. Genetic memory is an absolute misnomer for a phenomenon psychologists can’t figure out: savants. It’s, of course, far more likely that the same neurological structures that developed over millions of years to see and hear patterns (humans’ particular strength) become enhanced through chance in these individuals (genetic chance, biological chance, etc.), resulting in a specific neural structure ideal for recognizing and repeating complex patterns such as those present in music and art. Nothing about this poorly named phenomenon, however, has anything to do with past lives or cloning. This myth is a leftover of Linnaean genetics, which posited (erroneously) that parents passed on things they’d learned/acquired in their lifetimes to their offspring (such as skills at the piano or the loss of a limb).
In (not so) short: the science of Æon Flux is absolute malarkey.
- Evolution doesn’t work like that
- DNA doesn’t work like that
- Cloning doesn’t work like that
I think if the ‘science’ in this science fiction had been interesting, disruptive or at least plausible I would have had more to say about Æon Flux. It is a live-action adaptation of an MTV animation that is purposefully abstract and inventive; the adaptation flattens this quirky inventiveness out and there is insufficient content (visual/philosophical) to keep the audience engaged that the plot becomes far too necessary. But the plot’s a mess, so it doesn’t really help.
“I keep wishing some grand reckoning is coming, where we might accept the female imagination into our cultural conversation as necessary, vital, and completely just present, as opposed to fighting for the voice, fighting for the space at the table. I mean, we’re all here!” – Karyn Kusama
The production story of Æon Flux is frustratingly similar to Tank Girl (and MANY other women director’s stories of the industry) because like Talalay, Kusama’s original cut and vision for the movie was mangled by the studio – this time Paramount. In 2003 Kusama was sent a Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi script adaptation of Æon Flux (1991-1995) – the daringly weird avante-garde MTV animated shorts created by Peter Chung. Hay and Manfredi had constructed a SF-romance-action movie from a source that purposely rejected narrative continuity.
Similar to Waddington’s story of over-preparedness in her pitch for Paradise Hills, Kusama went into her studio meeting with concept and story boards and a detailed plan for the emotional, time-bending piece she imagined. Over time the original $110 million budget was slashed in half, and the Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing who supported Kusama’s vision in pre-production moved on. Across the production of the film there were two further changes in the leadership at Paramount. On completion Kusama was replaced as editor (and was not permitted to be alone with the editor in post-production) and the studio attempted to turn the artistic SF Kusama had created into a conventional action movie. Except it didn’t work. They shortened the highly choreographed fight sequences, buried their gays, and cut key narrative scenes. It was and remains a mess. Kusama even considered taking her name off the project.
Kusama now tries to ensure she gets ‘final cut’, which she obviously did not have on Æon Flux. She remarked in a 2018 interview that to ensure her final cut she has to “[work] independently on a very aggressive budget”; she now “recognizes that sometimes creative control comes at a very high price, and I’m willing to pay that.” Æon Flux was “a real baptism in the brutal logic of Hollywood”, and taught the director harsh lessons about being a woman in genre filmmaking.
“Maybe [‘movie jail’ is] supposed to sound like a rite of passage, but so few women get any opportunity to have more than just the rite of passage, which is a big part, I think, of what we really need to be talking about when it comes to women’s careers in film. It’s the sense that each movie represents some kind of finality, potentially, to their career, as opposed to the sense of you have hits, and you have misses. That’s called being an artist” – Karyn Kusama
Ten years apart, Tank Girl and Æon Flux were both exciting potentially feminist intersections in the SF-action arena. But both suffered from studio interference that showed a lack of trust in women directors in a male dominated genre field working with male-created source materials. Where Tank Girl’s chaotic visual style and deliciously mad central performance saves the film (ish) in retrospect, the slick martial arts inspired (from the era of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) action-heavy albeit artistic content of Æon Flux was so dismantled in post-production hell that even the wondrous Charlize Theron gets lost in the mess. I might need to watch The Old Guard again as a palette cleanser and then watch Jennifer’s Body. I really wish I didn’t keep finding the same story.
What to watch next from Karyn Kusama:
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
XX (2017) – segment “Her Only Living Son”
Tasha Robinson (2019). ‘Maybe at this point I equate femaleness with being radical’: Karyn Kusama on ‘Destroyer’. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/17/18187017/destroyer-director-interview-karyn-kusama-nicole-kidman-behind-scenes-women-hollywood-oscar
Charles Barfield (2018). Karyn Kusama Explains What Went Wrong & What She Learned From ‘Aeon Flux’ And ‘Jennifer’s Body’. The Playlist. URL: https://theplaylist.net/karyn-kusama-aeon-flux-jennifers-body-20181227/
Adam B. Vary (2016). How Hollywood Turned Its Back On One Of The Most Exciting Directors. Buzzfeed. URL: https://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/karyn-kusama-the-invitation-girlfight
Kate O’Riordan (2008) Human cloning in film: horror, ambivalence, hope. Science as Culture 17(2): 145-162. [http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/1723/1/O%27Riordan.pdf]
Nina Munteanu (2008). Aeon Flux: Motion Picture & Animation [review]. The Alien Next Door: Musings of Nina Munteanu, SF writer and Ecologist. URL: http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/05/aeon-flux-motion-picture-animation.html
The visual representation of women in the 1990s Æon Flux animation is difficult to ignore as Æon wears a thong as outerwear throughout and contorts her impossible body (not enough ribs) endlessly for the audiences’ apparent visual pleasure. But it is undoubtedly a groundbreaking flagship short-form animation show from the experimental MTV channel Liquid Television, which offered a space for adult animation to develop and play with form and content. Despite the problematic presentation of the lead character, the fact that Æon Flux has a morally complex woman protagonist is noteworthy, and would still, sadly, be considered as such 30 years later.