|Written by Bill Warren|
|Thursday, 01 February 2007|
Uninvolved onlookers probably found it hard to distinguish between “Ultraviolet” and “Æon Flux;” both were action pictures with a beautiful, tough and sleek heroine as the lead character; both were set in oppressive futures; both were wide screen and color; both were filled with effects; both took advantage of real buildings in the cities where they were shot. And neither was much good, though “Æon Flux” is somewhat better than “Ultraviolet.” But that shouldn’t be taken as high praise.
“Æon Flux” is based on a series of short cartoons created by Peter Chung, telecast on MTV. The cartoons are tough and wry; the movie takes a tough stance but never really reaches that point—and it’s anything but wry. Chung’s little cartoons were not intended to be taken very seriously, but the movie definitely wants to be regarded as a serious work, to the point where it’s totally avoid of humor. At least “Ultraviolet,” which is much sillier, did have traces of a sense of humor.
On-screen text informs us that in the year 2011, a plague virus swept the world, wiping out 99% of the population. (That’s only five years away; I hope you have all your shots.) Trevor Goodchild, a benign scientist, finally found a vaccine against the plague, and his descendants have ruled over the relatively few survivors ever since. Five hundred years later, all of humanity lives in one elegant but chilly-looking city (extensive location shooting was done in Berlin), guided firmly by the Goodchild dynasty.
However, insecurity is trickling in. People are having dreams of experiences they never had, and every now and then, someone disappears. (It’s always women, but we aren’t told that.) There exists an underground group called the Monacans, who are secretly struggling to help “the disappeared” and to overthrow the dictatorial if benign reign of the Goodchilds (Goodchildren?), now guided by current Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas).
Æon Flux (Charlize Theron) is a Monacan rebel soldier, so adept that she can capture a fly with her eyelashes. She’s beautiful, sleek and cool to everyone except her younger sister Una (Amelia Warner). As the movie opens, Æon carries out a mysterious mission involving a vast pool that plays back recent events in rippling pools caused by falling drops. There’s not a clue as to what this is for or why it has been targeted for destruction by the possibly-unreal Monacan handler (Frances McDormand), who appears in agents’ minds after they swallow a pill, passed to them in a kiss. But Æon does destroy it like a good little agent. This involves a lot of climbing, dangling from lines, and explosions.
We also see Trevor consulting with other members of the ruling elite, including his brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller), with whom Trevor has a mysterious disagreement, though it’s clear that Oren is a Bad Guy.
When Una is killed by the police, Æon goes into overdrive. She teams up with fellow agent Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), who has replaced her feet with another pair of hands. This is realized perfectly by very skillful effects—but this unusual attribute has no function in the story. They leap about lawns that thrust forth little spikes, and make their way past trees with fruit that fires darts. Stuff happens.
Æon does meet Trevor, and is somewhat disturbed by the encounter, for she seems to have pleasant memories of him, but in another setting altogether. They end up in bed.
She keeps trying to find out what’s behind the mysterious elements, which the script by writing team Phil Hay Matt Manfredi keeps sweeping under the carpet. Every now and then, someone mentions “the disappeared,” or refers to the strange dreams/memories some people are having, but the movie is more about appearances than content.
It’s directed by Karyn Kusama, a peculiar choice; her only other notable feature was “Girlfight,” light-years away from the fantasy of “Æon Flux.” She’s as peculiar a choice as the writers, who’ve done nothing of importance. The movie was produced by MTV’s theatrical arm (for Paramount release), but it’s very unlike rock videos (while “Ultraviolet” basically IS a feature-length rock video); it’s more stately, more contained—and more boring.
Charlize Theron is the movie’s main strength. She was a ballerina for 12 years (as she says on the commentary track), so she already had an athlete’s body, allowing her to do many of her own stunts. And she looks great in the always skin-tight costumes. But even an actress as good as Theron—she won the Oscar for “Monster”—can make little headway with a script that seems determined not to provide her with much in the line of characterization.
The best scenes are those with Theron and Sophie Okonedo (an Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”); there’s a real spark between them, and whenever Okonedo is off screen, you want her back. There’s absolutely no trace of a spark between Theron and Marton Csokas, who mostly looks somewhat sad. Jonny Lee Miller is much more dynamic and interesting in his few scenes than Csokas is in all of his.
We have little reason to care about anyone we see, and the script is so carefully evasive that there are few issues to latch onto. Even when we learn what’s behind all the mysterious stuff, it’s presented in an understated—and therefore uninvolving—manner. The movie attempts to be very stylish, but it’s to the point of near abstraction. It’s a remarkably unemotional film.
The photography by Stuart Dryburgh is handsome but not striking, but Andrew McAlpine’s production design is very striking, but it’s not colorful, creating another means of telling the gray, green, white and gray “Æon Flux” from “Ultraviolet,” which, perhaps in keeping with the title, is stunning, even overdone, in its use of intense colors.
Unusual locations all over Berlin were employed, but while the architecture is dramatic and imposing, it’s also remote and aloof. That seems to have been deliberate; on the other hand, Graeme Revell’s score is emotional and resonant, much more so than the images on screen.
As for those images, in this Blu-Ray disc they’re certainly as fully-realized as currently possible. Many of these buildings, walls, gardens and walks are constructed of concrete, and you can almost feel the dry, gritty surfaces. But the movie isn’t as interesting-looking as the TV cartoons, and has the effect of looking futuristic while trying not to.
The sound is more of a problem. In an important scene, Æon manages to reach the dirigible-like “Relicle,” that constantly circles the city below. Inside, it seems to be a giant computer with a strange attendant (Pete Postlethwaite); it’s never clear if he’s alive or a computer program. Æon gets some stored material to play back—but it’s almost impossible to hear. This may be a function of the original mix of the sound, it may be a failure in the transferring of the movie to digital high definition, and it may be a glitch in my own system—but I doubt that, as this is the only disc that has had this problem. We can hear a kind of muttering, and if you turn the sound WAY up, you can make out the stored speech—but then you’ll have to leap for the remote when the recording ends.
As bad as it is, “Ultraviolet” is much better as a high-definition demonstration disc, though “Æon Flux” is unquestionably a better movie. However, the somber, grimly purposeful approach is all wrong for this movie serial-like story. It should have been more breezy a bit lighter, more fun to watch.
This same overseriousness extends to all the supplemental material, though the commentary track by veteran producer Gale Ann Hurd and Theron is occasionally light and lively. However, it’s also full of long pauses, one of the deadliest flaws for a commentary track. The track by the writers is merely boring. There are also brief documentaries on the production design, locations and costuming, featuring Hurd, the director, MTV’s David Gale, Theron and others. The most interesting information is that the film was originally to be shot in Brasilia, Brazil’s capitol, a city planned and built from the ground up. But instead, the film was shot in Berlin, an interesting but not particularly imaginative choice. There’s also a strange short on the set photographer—but there is no matching collection of production photos.
The head honchos at Paramount were reportedly surprised when “Æon Flux” didn’t do “Lara Croft Tomb Raider”-like business at the boxoffice. But even though the Lara Croft movies were pretty damned bad, they at least were mostly well-paced and had spectacular effects sequences. “Æon Flux” lacks such big-scale scenes, except for the wreck of the Relicle at the climax.
The movie has little to recommend it, beyond a chance to see blonde Charlize Theron with black hair, and in somewhat sexy costumes. That’s really not enough.