Pop quiz: Which is odder? The fact that a famously surreal animated MTV series is getting a big-screen adaptation a decade after its prime? The fact that a big summer-style blockbuster is sneaking out in December? The fact that a slick $55 million actioner is being helmed by a director whose sole previous credit was on a low-budget urban indie? Or the fact that in spite of all the above, Aeon Flux is pretty solid entertainment?
Admittedly, it's an odd mutt of a movie. Peter Chung's original animated Aeon Flux shorts were aggressively alien concoctions of B&D imagery and ultra-fetishized violence, all wrapped around a lanky, silent eponymous heroine built like a heap of giraffe bones laced in sinew and minimalist leather gear. Her missions were incomprehensible, and she not only failed at all of them, she inevitably died in the attempt. A subsequent series gave her a voice, a more understandable purpose, and a slightly less abysmal success rate, but still left most questions unanswered. A big-screen adaptation that fills in the blanks, lays out an easy-to-follow story, gives Aeon Flux clear motives and objectives, and replaces her unlikely angles with familiar human curves would seem to be missing everything that made Chung's series memorable. But director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and screenwriting partners Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Crazy/Beautiful, The Tuxedo) synthesize their own forms of future-tech freakiness and frame them in a tricked-out, twisty story that's too jerkily paced to qualify as "propulsive," but at least manages "intriguing."
The feature-film version of Aeon Flux begins by tossing out an undigested lump of seemingly too-fussy, too-detailed exposition (ultra-short version: it's 2415, Marton Csokas is the head of a fascistic regime, Charlize Theron as vengeful super-rebel Aeon Flux is out to kill him), then leaping into what looks like 90 minutes of numbing Theron-on-mook violence. But without warning, Theron gets distracted and the film turns into something drier and more thoughtful; what initially seemed conceptually slight but visually neat expands into a much more complicated story where the ideas lead the action instead of the other way around. Kusama gives the film some of the visual chill of Resident Evil and some of the future-slick of Equilibrium, and like those movies, Aeon Flux may only appeal to genre fans who prefer their fast-paced, well-choreographed, martial-arts-inflected ass-kickery flavored with a complicated backstory and a lot of freaky CGI widgets and video-gameish special effects. But as geek-chic goes, Aeon Flux is reasonably smart in its slower moments, and a whipcrack-quick ride when it speeds up. It doesn't much resemble Chung's vision, but it's enough that it actually has a vision of its own.