The future looks alternately grim and hysterical in “Aeon Flux,” a spectacularly silly sci-fier that plays like “The Matrix” crossed with “The Island” and reinterpreted as a long-lost Michael Jackson video. Giving Charlize Theron untold opportunities to slink around in artfully shredded spandex, this kitschy Paramount vehicle was ushered, sans advance press screenings, into wide release, where it will likely draw meager male-centric biz before getting lost amid the glut of end-of-the-year prestige releases. Fans of the original MTV series, however, may find it an intriguing homevid collectible.
Launched as a series of animated shorts shown on MTV’s “Liquid Television” in 1991 (and later reborn as a half-hour skein that lasted 10 episodes), “Aeon Flux” achieved considerable cult fandom with its sexy, visceral spin on traditional sci-fi elements and its intriguing title heroine — a ruthless and ruthlessly sexy killer given to dispatching her enemies in inventively baroque ways.
In its earliest incarnation, the series was also notable for its lack of dialogue — a deficiency that scribes Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have rectified here to highly questionable effect.
Story is set in the year 2415, four centuries after a fatal virus wiped out 99% of the earth’s population, forcing the surviving 1% to relocate to the pristine, walled-in city of Bregna. At once a dubious paradise and a marvel of trippy production design, Bregna is ruled by chairman Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) and his brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller), who keep a tight grip on the population via a combination of constant surveillance and military force.
Enter Aeon Flux (Theron), a raven-haired assassin on the side of a secret band of rebels known as the Monicans. Bedeviled by bizarre nightmares and memories she can’t explain, Aeon turns vengeful after the government murders her peace-loving sister Una (Amelia Warner), making it a matter of the utmost personal satisfaction when she’s ordered to kill Trevor by the Monicans’ leader (Frances McDormand, in a flaming red wig backlit for maximum comic effect).
Flanked by ally Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), who happens to have hands instead of feet, Aeon sets off for the Goodchilds’ fortress. The mission fails, however, once she gets a good look at her target, initiating a flood of flashbacks that eerily suggest a past connection and complicate her sense of what’s going on (to say nothing of the viewer’s). Action unexpectedly transitions into a love story, as Aeon and Trevor form a sexually charged alliance and go into hiding from their respective factions while the treacherous, Iago-like Oren seizes power.
As weird a follow-up as it is to Theron’s Oscar-winning performance in “Monster” and the recent “North Country,” pic reps an even more bewildering sophomore effort for helmer Karyn Kusama, whose first film was the acclaimed Sundance prize-winner “Girlfight.” Aside from the fact that both films are centered around super-aggressive femmes, there are no stylistic or thematic links in evidence, and certainly nothing that suggests an artistic progression.
The more relevant credit here is that of Gale Ann Hurd, the producer behind “Aliens” and “The Terminator” franchise. While the PG-13-rated “Flux” is no match for those films viscerally, there’s plenty of grotesquerie on display, as Aeon must at various points dig bullets out of Trevor’s chest, stab soldiers with a bloody shard of glass and — in the most gratuitous burst of violence — rip out an assailant’s hoop earring with her teeth.
As for Theron, she holds the screen as capably as ever, and is called on to perform an impressive array of acrobatic stunts and still manage to keep her bangs dangling seductively in her face; like Angelina Jolie before her in the “Tomb Raider” movies, she turns combat into the ultimate fashion statement. Csokas makes an intriguingly recessive foil as Trevor, whose relative weakness compared to his partner makes for an amusing running gag.
Most of the time, however, the utterly humorless and self-serious tone leaves one plenty of time to ponder the mysteries of the film’s universe — why, for example, fashion sense has devolved so radically in 400 years, or whether atmospheric nerve gas is to blame for the actors’ stilted, portentous delivery. Embodying both these riddles is a strange, oracular figure called the Keeper (Pete Postlethwaite, wearing what appears to be a giant macaroni shell) who’s at the heart of the government conspiracy.
At the very least, pic is certainly something to look at, deploying showy but seamless visual effects and making inventive use of pools, mirrors and other reflective surfaces –the means by which characters both spy on each other and look longingly into the past.