A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
The answer offered up by the barrage of films following Lang’s rarely echo the subtlety of his message. In the beginning of director Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, the film’s namesake (played by Charlize Theron) sets up the story through a predictable voice-over that includes such now-cliche staples as disease epidemics, few survivors, power-hungry tyrants and Utopian societies. The narrative is an incredibly tragic ‘history’ of this planet, but it does provide an answer to our question. Unlike Lang, modern-day sci-fi filmmakers have become positively reliant on the ‘cataclysm’ plot device. For them, the only way to add weight to the proceedings is to begin with the apocalypse, so that the resulting Lang-esque society can be attributed not on humanity’s own failures, but on random chance, making humans bystanders of their own destruction. It’s an easy device to use, almost a cop out, but it also reflects modern day society’s failings – fear of the apocalypse which is always thought to be just around the bend, and enormously high self-esteem which leaves humans blameless for all of their prospective troubles.
For Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who previously wrote the screenplay for The Tuxedo), an uninvolved society is part of the issue. Throughout Aeon Flux, all humans, except for the main characters, are seen as walking in a daze, in an almost zombie-like state. If this is done on purpose (and I assume so), it’s one of the most compelling aspects of the film as it successfully portrays the uninvolved as the enablers of tyranny. At one point in the film, Theron’s character proclaims “I want to feel human again!” As one of the rebel “Monicans” – trained fighters that work to bring down the dictator Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) – that statement is an appropriate one, and it’s a good call-to-arms for people living under dictatorships – it’s simply not human. The statement by Aeon’s doomed sister Una who says that she “is trying to make something good out of” the problems she sees around her every day, is punctuated by a father who is asking if people have seen his daughter who’s mysteriously disappeared. Aeon accurately describes Una’s attitude as voluntary ignorance in a dialogue scene that may be the film’s finest moment.
Unfortunately this is as cerebral as the film gets, as Kusama tends to favor empty, but over-stylized action sequences, instead of much needed character moments. While there is no doubting the Monicans’ physical abilities, the action scenes fail to excite, as Kusama squanders cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s wide-angle action with edits that cut away right when the fight gets interesting. The biggest disappointment is the hand-to-hand combat – it’s strange to see the director of Girlfight utilize this potentially exciting device so sparingly. Instead, after a couple of jumps and knife swings Aeon’s targets are eliminated as quickly as they appeared. Using the phrase ‘split-second’ to describe some of Aeon’s kills is not an exaggeration by any means.
So what does that leave us? The plot twists are compelling, but as Aeon figures out each one of them, Theron finds it inexplicably appropriate to overact and mishandle the scenes – an unfortunate development for an actress just coming off a deserved Oscar win. Csokas puts on a better, more theatrical performance. His is a tragic character, forever doomed in the cycle of life, who holds all the secrets of this film. The actor seems unburdened by the expectations put onto him by the script, and comes out largely unscathed with a good performance. The rest of the cast is filled with talent – from Johnny Lee Miller as Trevor’s unsettled brother Oren to Pete Postlethwaite as a doctor relegated to forever assisting Trevor Godchild with his scientific experiments. The trouble is that none of them stand out and one is able to remember them by appearance only, not by memorable lines or deliveries. If the script is structurally strong, it still relegates the supporting talent to bit roles that lack character development or motivation.
Aeon Flux is meant to be a depressing film. Death is seen as a welcome escape from an inhuman state of existence. The last act does not make the audience feel any better. But the film’s compellingly depressing story is unfortunately coupled with bad execution, misused talent, and action scenes that need to be endured, instead of enjoyed. Sure Lang aimed high back in 1927, but it was his meticulousness that prevented him from crumbling beneath his own ambitions. Kusama is not so careful. From the first frame to last her film is a misguided, confusing homage to Lang that turns out to be way too similar to the barrage of films that have followed his masterpiece ever since. Read: it’s average.