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Æon Flux   D

Paramount Pictures / Lakeshore Entertainment

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi (based on characters created by Peter Chung)
Cast: Charlize Theron, Marton Csokas, Jonny Lee Miller, Sophie Okonedo, Pete Postlethwaite, Amelia Warner, Caroline Chikezie, Frances McDormand.

Review by Rob Vaux

Before we begin, a little insight into the critics' collective mind: we can smell fear, and frankly we have no problems pouncing on those who exhibit it. We're callous little weasels that way. Call it a throwback to our hunter-gatherer instincts. "Oooh, this one is weak. It must be culled from the herd!" The best way to trigger an attack is to try to hide something from us: for example, by refusing to screen a film before its theatrical release. When one doesn't allow one's product to be seen, it suggests that said product is perhaps not up to snuff -- that the studio has a bomb on its hands and wishes to suck up a few unsuspecting dollars before the word gets out. Critics love taking down movies like that... especially when they feature two Oscar winners, a well-regarded director, and bona fide status as an event picture. It's blood in the water to us. It's chuck steak in front of a wolf. It's a gigantic "Kick Me" sign planted right on Charlize Theron's tushie, and one needs a strong will to resist such temptation.

I, my friends, am not that strong.

Had Æon Flux been more than just a hot mess, it would be easier to play nice with it. But the final product on display is stinky indeed, and by bottling it up beforehand, Paramount conceded its plans to take the opening weekend grosses and run. That reduces the equation to a cynical money grab of which even the most undemanding consumer should be warned. There is nothing in Æon Flux to justify 90 minutes of your time. Not even the sight of Theron in stylized bondage gear (which I suppose makes the film a hot sexy mess) can atone for the muddled story, hackneyed action, and dulled-down effects.

Director Karyn Kusama has retained the biomechanical weirdness of the MTV animation on which the film is based. But she loses the sense of fascination that accompanied it, as well as the overarching leaps of imagination that gave the cartoon such a distinctive look. In its place is a washed-out, hackneyed bit of would-be Orwellian fantasy, pitting yet another band of plucky rebels against yet another totalitarian regime. It's 400 years in the future and mankind has been relegated to a single city after a virus has wiped out 99 percent of the world's population. The citizens live in utopian perfection under the rule of Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas), the descendent of the scientist who devised a cure to the virus. Kusama renders this universe in flat and boring variations of Stalinist architecture: blank stone framed by uninspiring bits of greenery. It looks cheap and unconvincing, as if shot at a low-rent community college somewhere, and the oddly-toned film stock does little to enhance its watchability.

The director does a little better when focusing on the minutia: technology married to the human body so closely as to render them indistinguishable from each other. But even here, there is little enticing or exciting about it; it's just fragile gimmickry, lending the barest hints of distinction without bothering to work out why we might be interested. The story is similarly desperate, throwing in muddled ideas with no sense of how to blend them. The area beyond the city walls is forbidden, but there are no plausible reasons why; Goodchild's regime hides a dark secret, but it's convoluted and drama-free. Even the rebels who fight for the city's freedom have nebulous and uncertain motives, going through the motions rather than demonstrating any true sense of purpose. Simply put, we're never given a reason to invest in the proceedings, draining them of urgency and turning the ensuing action into so much empty noise.

Which brings us to Theron, whose title character is an expert assassin working for the rebellion. She certainly cuts a striking figure as she vaults through the scenery, scurrying along heating ducts and breaking the necks of faceless guards with an endless array of acrobatics. But the script provides little in the way of personality for her, trying to portray her as enigmatic when she's merely bland. Theron behaves with such empty-eyed automation that it's hard to distinguish her from the architecture, and while her physicality is impressive, it's also butchered by shoddy editing that never lets us feel the pulse of her derring-do.

Kusama earns a little slack by applying some pseudo-feminist principles to the proceedings. For all their fetishized outfits, the girls have all the fun in Æon Flux, while the boys are passive, mute, and not nearly as prone to kicking gratuitous ass. Kusama's first film, Girlfight, pushed some surprising boundaries, and there's clear evidence that she hoped to continue the trend here. But if the surest sign of equality is the ability to make the same mistakes, then Kusama has earned her place beside the countless male hacks of the sci-fi action genre. Her efforts here do nothing but justify the studio's paranoia, and open the final month of the cinematic year on a disastrous note. Paramount ignored its audience in hiding this film from the press. Audiences would be well advised to return the favor.

Review published 12.02.2005.

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