The strengths of women, the weaknesses of men: why Aeon Flux is a good SF film

18 06 2009

What is it about science-fiction based shows and films that choose to explore their chosen ideas through mature, emotionally-complex characters, which brings out the vitriol and bile from mainstream critics and self-appointed ‘protectors of the flame’ fanboys and girls?  The two TV shows I’ve enjoyed the most this past US TV season have been Fringe and Dollhouse, both of which have been thankfully renewed.  Now, four years after its release, and four months after re-watching the original animation series in its entirety, I’ve finally seen the live-action feature version of Aeon Flux, and in all three cases, I am astonished with the hatred visited upon all three on their debuts.  I know time allows for some products to become appreciated and find their audience, but that initial hatred astonishes me.

What’s with that?

I understand the appeal of something like the original Aeon Flux animations, how unique they seemed at the time, how appealing to young males a near-naked amoral S&M babe assassin engaged in SF action was, as well as the quirky humour, and non sequitur plotting.  As an adult, however, the juvenile nature of the shows is self-evident, and diminishes their entertainment value.  Thus, I take the complaints about the live-action version from both fanboys and the original creator with several large pinches of salt – after all, how credible is it to make a big-budget feature in which the heroine dies several times?  What genuine originality would that provide to a paying audience other than the most superficial of novelties?  That it became a staple of South Park is all the evidence needed as to the juvenility of such an idea.  However, the third and final series of the animation, the one with the least amount of original creator involvement, is by far and away the most conventional and lacklustre, so any attempt to paint a story on a larger canvas that can still be called Aeon Flux still needs reference to the original, and shockingly, that’s exactly what the film does for its first half.

I counted numerous visual and story references to the original animation throughout the first half of the film, including:  transferring a secret message pill by open-mouthed kiss; dominatrix inspiration to Aeon’s clothing; the notion of one humanity divided into Breens and Monicans; the preponderance of biotechnology; Japanese and European influences on production and costume design; lethal acrobatic action that often makes Aeon seem part insect or animal; the fellow Monican assassin with feet for hands; the lethal obstacle course to access the dictator’s home; the sexual relationship with benevolent dictator Trevor Goodchild despite orders to assassinate him; the latter’s factionalist government, and his scientific quest for something not explained, but very important to him; and finally, the secret lab beneath his apartment that can only be accessed by dimensionally shifting (which leads to a brilliant fight worthy of the Wachowskis).  Frankly, as a fan of the animations, that’s MORE than enough to satisfy me that this adaptation honours its roots.

Now, to the meat of the criticisms about the other elements of the film, starting with the issue of dress.  Is it really so vital to have your lead actress practically nude in an outfit that would break or reveal far too much during every stunt move?  Is it not obvious that the credibility gap all science-fiction films face with an audience only worsens when the lead is a lethal assassin with apparently no sense of cold anywhere on her body?  The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo is the closest to such an outfit, and yes, Milla Jovovich also learnt to fight for that film and did so admirably – but she spends most of the film not fighting, and certainly not leaping around acrobatically and stealthily as an assassin would – which Charlize Theron does as Aeon.  Also, covering up does not automatically equate to less sexy – that’s the thinking of a juvenile male.  The heightened sensuality created by the costume designers, the actresses and the director are palpable, and definitely lift the film well above its rating.   I’ll return to those specific creative personnel later; let’s address the issue of providing a solid story foundation that actual follows some sense of dramatic purpose.  What is so wrong about trying to create a coherent world with a history that provides motivation for the characters whose actions are creating the drama?  The film never resorts to deus ex machinae beyond the traditional tensions of pulp adventure and filmic action, instead following people motivated by their pasts to make decisions in the present that dictate the future.  This is realistic, people – things generally happen for a reason, even if you don’t know what that reaon is – people do things because of who they are and how they’re shaped.  Otherwise it’s just the creators forcing the square characters through the round plot holes as they go along.  I buy that the people we see in the film are the way they are because of what has happened to the world – I love that their culture is built out of their history, even as much of that history is unknown to the majority.  Yes, the oddball complexity of Trevor Goodchild has, to some degree, been split between the brothers Trevor and Orin, and yet without that element, there is no emotional connection to the political machinations Goodchild’s underlings are engaged in as he pursues his scientific agenda.  It may dilute the original cartoon character, but it enables so much more, it’s a price well worth paying.

This brings me to the single most important element of the film, and one it shares with FRINGE and Dollhouse and which I believe to be at the heart of much of the fanboy and critical carping about these properties.  In all of these projects, there are no macho alpha males as lead characters, only as secondary or even tertiary ones, and more often than not villainous or opposed to the female leads in some manner.  Key relationships for the lead women are with other women; emotional and intellectual responses are not simple and swift, they are complex and often considered; wider contexts are weighed in the balance.  Most of all, human emotion and the memories they help create are seen as lasting elements of what makes us human – no celebration of callousness or coldness, although these exist in abundance in all of these fictions, but instead, the idea that some things go so deep in the psyche that even apparent erasure or re-engineering of the mind can only bury them, not delete them.  In short, all of them partake of the human response to the over-technologised world, they assert what were once seen as distinctly feminine values over more masculine ones traditional in these sorts of fictions.

The majority of the creative personnel on Aeon Flux were women; only the writers were male, but they came from a comedy background, not an action or SF one, and they re-wrote constantly to accommodate ideas from the director, producer, star and the locations they found.  They bring a sense of the organic to the film that goes beyond the lush production design and costuming into how people hold themselves, communicate, and fight.  The amoral aloofness and humorous violence is replaced by a sense of organic flow, of trained, motivated combat for clear-cut reasons; of nature and humanity shaping even the weapons and clothing.  Much was made of apparently poor editing of the fights at the time; five years on, in a post-Paul Greengrass vocabulary of cinema, these look like the incredibly well-crafted action sequences they are, with clear geography and visual cues for the audience, tightly but not overly edited.  The Monican leaders are women; all the key decisions are made by women; all the key fights happen between seriously badass women.  Race is not a factor – this is a future that has been forced by circumstance to become colour-blind, but no comment is made; as with all good SF, the facts are show to you, not told to you.  In fact, as with Dark City, I could have quite happily have watched the film without the opening narration – enough clues are given in the earliest dialogue scenes in the film, and that would probably be my one complaint against the film.

All of which leads me to wonder, particularly in light of the constant online crowing about the return of Sylvester Stallone to the action arena, just how much of the complaining has to do with male critics and fanboys feeling disconnected from three of the most interesting representations of empowered women in an SF context deliberately contrasted with unempowered women in the same.  All three of these fictions remind me of Jodie Foster’s discussion of the placing of the Hero’s Journey in a female context for The Silence of the Lambs, as mentioned on the commentary for said title on the Criterion DVD edition.  As a man, I love seeing empowered women in fiction, and always have done – blame 2000AD, 80s anime, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Cynthia Rothrock, Michelle Yeoh, HK films, and written SF & Fantasy as well as a strong mother for that – but to see fictions play with the very notion of what is and is not physical and emotional strength or weakness, to provide shifting contexts that demand different responses rather than a static one- or two-dimensional character always responding in the same manner, well, that entertains and thrills me like few other things in life, and I am glad that Aeon Flux decided to be so much more than just another Hollywood summer blockbuster wannabe.

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2 responses

9 04 2010
Rayna

You raise some vital points here, and I’d totally agree with the majority of them. Women in television, possibly because of the longer story arcs, or possibly because of the crowded marketplace that requires more innovative storytelling, seem to have much less two-dimensional lives than there heroic female counterparts in film.

But I would question the idea that “juvenile” approaches to women are at the heart of the matter of women’s costuming in film. There may also be other elements in play; for instance, let’s face it, it is much easier to produce an action figure of someone whose form isn’t obscured by too many layers of complex outfits. Plus, there is an increasingly generic aspect to the dominatrix-inspired clothing that goes back to Hong Kong filmmaking, though I suppose the most famous recent American incarnation is what they did with Trinity in the Matrix sequels. I guess as well, there is the idea of spectacle: there’s a nice piece on women in action adventure cinema in Yvonne Tasker’s book of the same title, where someone was considering the “action babes with guns” scenario. I seem to recall (though I had to have read it about 6 years ago) that the article suggested that women’s representations were normalising in this way. Essentially, we get what we KEEP paying for, so perhaps its less juvenile than pandering to certain “juvenile” audience expectations? It is easy to dismiss these women, but I wonder whether in doing so, we might not be being a little hard on them and their creators?

Also, I guess the heart of the question is why should women in scanty clothes be read only as represented for juvenile young men? I like these films too, and I suppose part of the joy of them for me is seeing a spectacle of femininity that I could never achieve. Without being inherently magical, these “action babes” are spectacularly unrealistic, which is part of their pleasure for me. I don’t have to feel like I’m in competition with them, or that they are “role models” as so many other female characters seem to have to become. Perhaps that is part of the point – dress these women in skin-tight PVC for “the lads” and the everyone can enjoy at least some unbridled femininity at its most threatening. At least, right up until they give these action babes “daddy issues”!

9 04 2010
hughkdavid

Ah, Dr.Denison, I had not even begun to think how closely this article was tied to our phone conversation of the other day 🙂 Funny you should mention the Tasker book, I have it somewhere but never finished the whole thing – might go back and do that now. I would state in my defence, however, that the accusation of juvenility is one I am levelling solely at Peter Chung’s original MTV series, in that much as I enjoyed that series, re-watching it from a distance of over a decade, I realised how shallow the pleasures of the series were. Going into the feature version, I was stunned to discover something that did the opposite of most live-action adaptations of comics/animations/books, and was shocked on reading Chung’s criticisms of said feature online as they concentrated solely on such details at the expense of narrative cohesion, proper SF extrapolation from the modern day and accessibility to a wider audience. Honestly, I don’t believe any more that the costume is so important to the character when the character is barely past the single dimension of young male fantasy. Your generalised points are, I think, something broader that I’m not attempting to address here.

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