When Karyn Kusama signed on to direct a live-action movie version of the adult cartoon Aeon Flux, she was following a pattern that is pretty familiar to moviegoers today. A critically acclaimed indie director (in this case, 2000’s Girlfight) transitions to making big-budget sci-movie action movies. With a critically acclaimed star in Charlize Theron, who had won an Academy Award for Monster a few years prior — as well as the tastemakers at MTV pushing it out — it seemed like a sure thing.
“And then we fucked it all up,” Theron would later tell Variety. Similarly, Kusama has told Buzzfeed it was "a real fuck-job of a movie.” To say that Aeon Flux was widely panned is putting it lightly, a startling 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes shows that critics almost unanimously thought it was a mess.
Aeon Flux is not a good movie and was likely disappointing to fans of Peter Chung’s animated series. But through the tumult and awkwardness of the movie, it stands out as part of Kusama’s origin story. Even with studio meddling, her ability as a director shines through. Given its place in the dustbin of movie history, it’s surprising just how much of Aeon Flux works.
But to start with what doesn’t — This is a movie that opens with both an introductory screen explaining world history 400 years into the future and an opening voice-over monologue, neither of which explains enough. You learn that most of the human population died in a pandemic, a man named Goodchild invented the vaccine, and the Goodchilds have ruled over humanity for centuries because of it.
And while it seems like the world of the Goodchilds in humanity’s last city of Bregna is good, it is actually bad. And a group of rebels called “Monicans” is going to stop them.
That’s a lot right there, and it does not include an explanation of why the group is called the Monicans (in the animated series, there’s a city called Monica). The entire thing is clunky, and when the black, tight outfits start showing up it could be easy to write this off as one of the countless Matrix rip-offs made after that movie changed action cinema in 1999.
The good stuff — While there are certainly elements of The Matrix in Aeon Flux, what stands out today is how much Kusama is able to make the movie her own. The color palette is bright and bold, with pinks and lush greens standing out amidst the violence. Design in the movie, from the dirigible flying over Bregna to the small metal bombs Theron uses to bust out of jail, is inspired.
The fight scenes can border on silly with their need to incorporate sci-fi aspects, like deadly plant guns, but when it’s up close and personal both Theron and Kusama shine. It's a movie with a clear visual language that is searching for any reason to make sense.
Kusama, for her part, has credited Flux’s failure to studio intervention. Talking to Deadline, she said:
"There were three administrations at Paramount during the life of the production and its eventual finish. New administrations at a studio typically see the movies from the prior administration as failures, and it’s tough to wrap your head around from a business perspective, from an ego part of the business. That’s hard to understand. The person who can’t control those huge transitional moments is often the director."
Watching it now, it’s easy to spot. The movie has been hastily thrown together and edited by a number of different committees, none of which are talking with each other. The movie presents its stunning visuals with little to no context, making the viewer feel like they are wandering into room after room where something kind of cool is happening.
It’s a rough origin story, but Kusama has said that her time with Aeon Flux, as well her follow-up Jennifer’s Body, were “learning experiences. I look at them with a lot of fondness a lot of the time.”
Kusama would go on from Aeon Flux to not only make Jennifer’s Body but also 2015’s The Invitation, a segment in the horror anthology XX, 2018’s Destroyer, not to mention a variety of TV shows including an episode of HBO's The Outsider. Her later films, all of which focus on violence in one way or another and mostly have female protagonists, show the trademarks of a director who learned the mistakes of an overly intrusive studio and trust her vision.
It’s a shame that the revolutionary vision of Chung’s cartoon never got the big-screen treatment it deserved.
"We were like, 'We want to do the craziest version of this movie possible, something really, genuinely weird,'" Kusama told Buzzfeed in 2016.
That didn't happen. Aeon Flux now works best as a showcase for what its director could accomplish, if only she was given the right tools.
Aeon Flux is streaming on Hulu in the U.S. through December 31.