Reclaiming the Rotten: Karyn Kusama’s Æon Flux (2005)

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Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.

This Month: Karyn Kusama’s ÆON FLUX (2005) 

Rating: 9%

Karyn Kusama isn’t exactly a household director’s name, even as far as women currently working in the director’s chairs go. She is unfortunately not as well known as Kathryn Bigelow or Patty Jenkins, but she should be. Kusama has five films to her name as a director, starting with 2000’s Girlfight followed by cult horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, psychological thriller The Invitation and most recently the award-courting drama Destroyer. That leaves her second feature: the big budget science fiction action film Æon Flux. 

Kusama’s film is based a popular (arguably cult) animated series from the 90s originally shown on MTV as created by Peter Chung. The appeal of the film is that, of course, you’re seeing this sub-Akira-like world of a future post-2011 disease in live action rather than in its original animated form. This in a way is the prototype for something like Rupert Sanders’ more recent Ghost in the Shell. Æon Flux follows the titular character, a skilled warrior and rebel who talks via telepathy technology. Flux’s sister Una is killed being mistaken for one of the rebels and soon it becomes something of a mess, politically and personally for our hero.

What Æon Flux suffers from is being late to the party. Like the remake of Ghost in the Shell, Æon Flux as a live action film looks like all the other films that ripped off the original animation. The action is sub-Equilibrium which itself was sub-The Matrix. Even so, Kasuma is able to create interest in Flux as a character because she does the only rational thing to do when making a science fiction action film – she hires Charlize Theron. It’s hard to remember but Theron wasn’t always the go-to for kicks action women, she was once known more for supporting roles in dramas before her big Academy Award winning turn in Monster. Here she is in blockbuster mode – ironically in the second film she made in ’05 with Frances McDormand – the other being North Country.

Paramount Pictures

The film works best when it places its pressure on Theron. This hard-nosed badass role is one that she arguably does better in other films she has starred in, but with that being said, here we can see that she took the role seriously and her stoic warrior is the thing that holds up best of all. Were it not for Theron, there is a chance the film could have fallen apart. At times it is made clear that it takes a proper actor to give even the most lightweight films a little heft.

There’s also the chance that the film knows how camp it is; there’s no way that respected actors like McDormand or Pete Postlethwaite wouldn’t be in on the gag that this is hokey science fiction silliness. Especially given the fact that Postlethwaite spends the entirety of his screen time walking around in a full body condom. The acting largely lends to the often insane plotting that sees everyone betraying each other and plot twists that are fairly obvious to anyone who has watched a science fiction film in the last thirty years. 

Even so, the film’s main pleasure is in the action and Kusama does show something of a flair for the pre-Nolan gymnastic heavy action that dominated the early 2000s blockbusters. You get the sense from them that real people are on wires and being thrown around, and that Theron is one of them. She holds her own against the best the stunt community can throw at her and it’s undeniable that Theron can sternly pose and look into the middle distance post-backflip better than anyone.

Paramount Pictures

While the film’s message – if there is one – about fascism and controlling populations through fertility and messages about nature being dangerous feel very timely, there is also the sense that Kusama and her team genuinely believe that state control is not the way forward and that bodily autonomy is the future. 

It’s also a film that offers women a chance to flex their muscles in every way. After only one film Kusama has been offered what could have been the start of a major franchise, while Theron headlines a film that is playing essentially to the young male crowd but arguably refuses to fully sexualise Flux in the same way that the TV series did. It is also notable for being produced by Gale Anne Hurd who famously produced Aliens and Terminator 2, possibly two of the most important female driven action films of all time.

It’s easy to see why the film wasn’t as beloved as it could have been. It’s based on a cult show not many people remember and is filled with arcane dialogue and names that act as the precursor to the strange renaming tropes of the YA boom to come a decade later, but it’s also not difficult to watch. The design is slick, like an Apple store designed this future world, and the performances range from stoic (Theron), to pantomime (Marton Csokas as the villain) to outright silly (full body condom).

If the failure of the film hurt Kusama’s career, and the four year gap between this and Jennifer’s Body, followed by the six year gap between that and The Invitation suggests it did, then it’s not because she was at fault in making it. It’s fair to say that the world has moved on substantially now, and a female lead science fiction or action film can do great business – Theron has seen to it that she’s a staple of the genre – but there’s also this feeling that Æon Flux was a victim of two major issues of the time.

Paramount Pictures

By 2005 Catwoman had come out to disastrous box office and so too had Elektra in the same year as Æon Flux, that might have been enough to put audience – and critics – off a major action film headlined by a woman. Not only this but by the time it opened in December, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had been released and re-written the rules on summer blockbuster action, forcing every major studio to make their action films “realistic” and “dark”, opting for more knuckle-crunching action than the graceful wire work on display here.

As it stands, Kusama’s 2005 film is not her best – it may actually be her worst film for a reason, but it’s by no means the worst film of all time, and despite being caught in the maelstrom of changing movie landscapes and opinions, it holds up relatively well. Perhaps most damning of all is the assertion by the writers that there is thirty minutes more to the film that fleshes it out better. But even so, it remains an enjoyable romp with Theron holding her own in carving an action niche for herself, and if it needs saying twice, it needs saying three times – Pete Postlethwaite is wearing a full body condom.

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