Aeon Flux: a cult classic
“I always felt like there was a complete disconnect between things that were fun and entertaining to watch and things that were more thoughtful and philosophical.” Peter Chung
Reading Time: 7 minutes
No, not the dopey movie*, the real thing!
The occasional upside of shit movies is that the often unfindable source material comes to light, in this case it was the airing to DVD of what I’ve always regarded to be one of the finest animated series of all time. Aeon Flux, aired by MTV’s ‘Liquid Television’ in the early to mid 90s was released to DVD back around 2005, meaning those that caught fleeting glimpses of the series, finally had the chance to sit down and watch the lot in one hit; what’s more, the released boxed set was apparently the ‘director’s cut’, whatever that (really) means.
I fell into that group of watchers that had caught just enough of the series on TV, for it to burn itself into the back of my consciousness and hence never forgotten it. At the time it could only be described as groundbreaking both in its style and storyline but what captivated me the most, was the delicate line it trod between entertainment and art; both the delivery and the storylines were so stylised that in many ways the series transcended anything that was being produced at the time… and since, as it’s now come to light.
The premise of Aeon Flux is pretty basic – self obsessed (and rather twisted) Trevor Goodchild takes over as Chairman of Bregna to ‘better’ the lives of its population. From the outside, in a Cold War, Berlin Wall style, protagonist Aeon Flux and the Monican resistance attempt to overthrow him and ‘free’ the Bregnaians. It’s never obvious as to who is right and who is wrong in this ‘fight’, many of the scenarios leave you thinking Aeon herself is every bit as self obsessed as Trevor. Whatever the true situation, it’s made pretty clear that both sides core aim is to dominate and control its populace. As the backbone of the story arc it’s about as complex as it needs to be but it’s within this ‘simple’ premise that Peter Chung (the series creator) manages to interweave the most twisted and complex stories one could imagine. If I had to use one word to describe Aeon Flux, it would be ‘abstract’ and that is perhaps why, after so many years, Aeon Flux holds its own in the animated series realm.
An in-depth description of an episode of Aeon Flux is near impossible, it’s something you need to watch, but it would be easiest to say every espisode is a strange blend of fetish – why is Aeon Flux getting around in a strange chastity g-string; and Trevor Goodchild, with his large belts and cod pieces., sex, abstract situations and just plain outright ‘warped’ scenarios. Within this construct, peripheral happenings and subplots, every bit as strange as the main scenario itself unfold; possibly why you can watch and rewatch each episode and still not catch everything…. I completly missed a scene where a Monican agent is giving a Bregonian guard a blowjob in the background during a raid on a ‘facility’… easily missed if you are not watching closely; Aeon Flux is unabashed adult in its content.
The animation style reminds one very much of French graphic novels such as those penned by legendary Jean Giraud, aka Moebius or even the Frank Miller’s ‘Hardboiled‘ series. Colour and line work set down by Chung seems simple but is perfectly balanced with the complexity of the scenes themselves. Characters are highly stylised and as sexual as Aeon Flux herself seems, in many scenes her styling makes her more of an abstract parody of how we see sexually charged heroines. Like the stories themselves the animation, or the images it conveys, are multilayered, complex and often just plain strange. It’s lovely!
So how does it hold up, now over 20 years since it first aired? Considering the raft of animation that’s come and gone since Aeon Flux left our screens, very little has come close to equalling the outright maturity and thought provoking nature of the Aeon Flux series. This is an animated series that pays no regard to kids by double dipping with cutesy kid friendly animation with adult subplots. Hell, I would even go so far as to say that Aeon Flux would probably challenge many adults these days with its abstract thoughts and styling. On that basic principle alone I consider Aeon Flux to be even better now than when it first came out – it got better with age… !
It makes you wonder how on earth the blockheads in Hollywood thought that they could ever turn Aeon Flux into a live action film….
*As is always the case, Hollywood took what was a pure and raw principle and dumb it down so people would not be challenged and leave the theatre feeling fluffy and warm. I wondered what Peter Chung might think of the live action version of his creation and lucky for me I found an interview at ‘Monican Spies’ from which I have pulled this excerpt:
Q: How do you REALLY feel about the movie Aeon Flux? Considering it couldn’t really ever touch upon how effective the cartoon is.
With apologies to both Phil and Matt– who have publicly been effusive in their praise for the show– the movie is a travesty. I was unhappy when I read the script four years ago; seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theatre made me feel helpless, humiliated and sad. I know it’s bad form for me to voice my disapproval in a public forum, but it’s silly for me, of all people, to continue playing dumb, considering most of the critics have voiced their disapproval using every mocking and condescending expression possible. I know that the studio made a lot of cuts against the wishes of the writers and director. Most of the cuts concerned further development of the secondary characters. Since my main problems are with the portrayal of Aeon and Trevor, I doubt that I’d have liked the longer version much better. I didn’t when I read the script, and there are definitely some things I’m glad WERE cut– like Catherine’s pregnancy.
Maybe the makers didn’t understand the source material and thought they were being true to it; or they understood it, but didn’t think it would appeal to a wide enough audience and altered it to suit their presumed target. They claim to love the original version; yet they do not extend that faith to their audience. No, they will soften it for the public, which isn’t hip enough to appreciate the raw, pure, unadulterated source like they do. The argument for the Catherine Goodchild movie is that an accurate live-action version of the Aeon Flux would have been too inaccessible for a mainstream audience. It would not have made money, ergo there’s no impetus for the studio to make it. It’s a circular argument which attempts to shift responsibility away from the individuals who make the film to the presumed audience. Presuming to know what an audience wants to see and tailoring the product to fit is a method that sucks all the drive I’d have to ever create anything. It’s self-defeating disingenuous.
I’m not naive about the realities of making unconventional films in the arena of “mass entertainment”. It’s possible to make good unconventional films; it’s also very hard. In any case, if you’re going to risk failure, I say do it boldly, with conviction. The problem with the movie is its failure of nerve.
The fact that Catherine decided to disobey her orders and investigate the source of her feelings for Trevor is offered by viewers as a sign of her independence. Is that how little some fans are willing to settle for? Aeon never took orders from anyone, never went into a mission without understanding her motives.
The original impetus behind the Aeon Flux “Pilot” was a critique of the manipulation of sympathy in Hollywood movies. That method is most transparent in the action genre. Aeon Flux was never an action vehicle. The only two episodes in which Aeon does much physical fighting are the shorts Pilot and War — in which her violent actions are portrayed as preposterous and futile. Not heroic. How can anyone watching those shorts NOT GET IT?