Aeon Flux offers a paradigm of ideas, spurred on by many and yet an influence toward things present. Before the Wachowski’s were bending brains with their series of social and technology obsessed philosophies Peter Chung was meddling away with his dystopian views of a future world filled with spies and political intrigue, backstabbing and corporate mayhem, and at its heart was a lone female warrior; a (presumably) leather-clad seducer in a society facing inevitable decline at the hands of a man with ambitions of becoming a single ruler.
All of this came at a time when MTV were revamping their image, whilst trying to appeal to a wider audience. Between 1991-’92 the world-famous network employed the services of upcoming young talent, whose ideas would prove to be unique, critical, surreal, comedic or perhaps contain all of these elements and more. Thus Liquid Television was born. It also just happened to be a period in the UK when the likes of BBC2 and Channel 4 were really trying to push themselves harder than ever by buying “different” shows that would ultimately appeal to a young generation but have enough adult tendencies to reach a higher demographic. As I recall the Beeb began showing Liquid Television during a 6 p.m. time slot, which was ambitious even for them, when considering the nature of the series’ content. While many of the pieces contained within were just downright bizarre and experimental, a couple managed to stand out enough for them to become cult entertainment. Fans can immediately recall Beavis and Butthead, Winter Steele, Stick Figure Theatre and of course its calling card Aeon Flux. The latter certainly generated conversation and found its audience overseas; it proved to be a domestic hit and one with the potential to take the animation world by storm. Thanks to its successful stint on Liquid Television MTV bosses commissioned a ten episode season, which also upped the run time to 22-minutes each.
So let’s get right into this series. It must be noted that these episodes are presented in their revised state, meaning that they’re a new director’s vision. For fans of the original run this might prove to be disappointing, but there’s little need for concern. Yes Peter Chung has had certain dialogue re-written (for continuity purposes), in addition to digitally adding special effects (perfectly implemented I might add for those now worrying), fixing lighting problems and timing errors, but the series retains its important story elements and unique visualisations. For me this is a first, having only been familiar with the Liquid Television shorts. Because of this I cannot make any comparisons, suffice to say that I see nothing here worth complaining about.
Aeon Flux’s original outing saw the character take on a horde of bad guys as she tried to achieve an important goal. Rather oddly however Aeon was a protagonist who was clearly flawed from day one; this made her something special in a world where heroes are considered to be too perfect. While Aeon was a dab hand and gunning down villains and scaling large heights - all stealthily of course - whilst wearing the skimpiest of outfits she was all too prone to simple mishaps. As such Peter Chung soon got into the knack of doing the unthinkable by killing her off in almost every episode. After the first couple it no longer was about how she’d get out of a sticky situation but how she’d meet her maker instead. Perhaps unintentionally the series was a little too humorous to be taken quite so seriously, but that would change slightly a few years later when she was granted more screen time. Incidentally these shorts are contained as bonus episodes on disc 3, which we’ll move onto later.
So how had the formula changed? It’s changed considerably. For a start it has been given far greater scope and a wider narrative. Aeon is also given an antagonist in the form of Trevor Goodchild, or at least he’s made more dominant than originally seen, also Aeon isn’t as prone to dying in every episode. Peter Chung still maintains her quirky qualities; there isn’t much he does differently when depicting her character, aside from the glaring fact that the series is now a full talkie. The shorts worked as almost silent pieces, accompanied by expressive music and fast paced visuals; it was rare to see a modern, animation series get away with such a concept. When it went big a lot of dialogue was assigned to these leading characters and support. The war between Aeon and Trevor, both living on opposite ends of a divided nation has been given huge precedence; a back story devoted to their ambiguous history together is sewn throughout a series of exciting storylines, which admittedly steer toward confusing on several occasions. However despite the occasional weirdness of what is going on here we have two characters separated by different values (though perhaps they were too alike at times) as they fight for the things they believe in. When comparing it to the original shorts there is most definitely a drastic shift as Chung’s ideas are allowed to develop and embed themselves deeply into its narrative. The term “made before its time” is an often overused one. Was Aeon Flux before its time? Perhaps it was when we look at how things took off after The Matrix. Would it have initially worked better as a feature film then? It’s difficult to say; certainly it never took off enough for it to be accepted by a wider, mainstream audience. With that said we have the new feature starring Charlize Theron (looking woefully miscast) as the titular heroine, but if anything it can be considered too little too late.
Its predecessor is intriguing from the get go. Aeon is a heroine who the viewer doesn’t necessarily have to like. As a role model she’s questionable; granted a strong female character, but one with tastes and assumptions that don’t always place her in a favourable light. She’s an accomplished fighter with several fetishes that Chung doesn’t attempt to hide; rather it seems he tries to push the envelope as far as he possibly can. There’s a sense here that had he been given the opportunity he would have taken the series down a darker and dirtier path. Aeon is dominating and ritualistic, playful, yet intimidating and as such she continues to be a constant thorn in the side of her occasional play toy, Trevor. Likewise Trevor offers little in the way of sympathy or empathy. He’s selfish, vane, never one to think of others unless it aids his cause, but like Aeon he has a penchant for the taboo. He’s also a little unorthodox in his experiments, and as we soon see he has that disturbing side to him that would be as fitting a compliment to any mad man. Ah but is he mad? But it’s the overall manipulative nature of each character that gives each storyline that extra hard edge.
Clearly this latter series builds upon the shorts in a way that Chung could never do initially; here we see the inevitable development that was merely hinted at before and here a lot of its evident Asian (in particular Japanese) influences seep through. This is a step up from the show originally designed to appeal to the easily influenced MTV generation; it’s far too adult in tone to be anything other than just that. Aeon Flux has very strong and continual sexual overtones that weave in and out of some often convoluted storylines. It occasionally stumbles as it tries to meet a middle ground, but of course one can only be more interesting than the other, as proved here. If anything Aeon Flux is just too packed for its own good, but more importantly the big question has to be in relation to just how intelligent the series is or thinks it is.
Aeon Flux is initially a little daunting; the rewards come much later because it’s not something to take lightly. Only once the viewer settles in does it begin to flow and make some kind of sense. With that said the series isn’t without its pretentious flaws; they are here but they’re disguised by the kind of dialogue that you would never hear outside of a production such as this, aside from The Matrix funnily enough. Peter Chung and his crew, or just writer Mark Mars make many a bold statement and there is some truth to what they say, though in reality much of it is already clichéd and much of it takes up more time than would be preferred. Gone is the original “action-driven narrative” that the box so eloquently describes (presumably for the original shorts) and in is a far greater, philosophical approach. At times the storylines are greatly helped by moments of lengthy exposition, at others they’re hindered when things become repetitive. It’s easy to sense a great deal of thematic progression, but one can’t help but wonder if the writers soon become perplexed by their own plotting; there are moments that spark and indeed these relate to any kind of social commentary but often justifiable means are played out between conversations had by Aeon and Trevor, which don’t always go smoothly.
When watching Aeon Flux though the narrative soon becomes second fiddle to what is essentially a quite beautiful looking series. Aeon Flux looks like no other show, which in itself is a very good thing. After ten years or so it still carries with it an identity which can’t be mistaken for anything else. Not many animators have come close or even tried to emulate Chung’s art form, although if we look to Japan we can draw comparisons with Takeshi Koike (who also provided a short film for The Animatrix). Chung’s designs are often elegant, as well as being imbued with realistic attributes. When we get to the series’ share of bad guys things have a natural way of becoming deformed or grotesque, though still managing to retain key humanistic properties. Facial expressions are just that – expressive in so many ways, while body movements are balletic and free flowing. Likewise its backdrops ooze with well executed ideas and colour patterns, which if examined closely clearly highlight the differences between the divided cities of Bregna and Monica. Chung also uses perspective to a great deal of success; just about every shot features some kind of impressive angle which usually does a whole lot more to accentuate character forms. On a technical front Chung brings us some outstanding vehicular and gadget designs which truly give it that sci-fi edge and makes us feel belonging in his expansive world. Although I don’t know its budget it does appear to have the look of a well financed series, but then it’s also highly intuitive and showcases Peter Chung’s skill well enough to suggest that he can indeed do wonders no matter the size of his budget.
Paramount has done a wonderful job in bringing Aeon Flux to the masses in this must-have 3-disc collection, which to be perfectly honest surpasses any expectations I might have had for it. As a package it’s very elegant, featuring the classic eye-trap embossed on a white outer sleeve that houses three sturdy packs, each holding a disc and including pleasant artwork.
A lot of work has been put into restoring the series for its DVD debut. First of all the original negatives were recovered, cleaned and digitally remastered, then transferred in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As mentioned earlier Peter Chung also oversaw the restoration and fixed up the problems that he felt needed ironing out. The image itself looks superb, with excellent colour definition (deliberately saturated) and great detail throughout, despite a couple of soft moments that are a result from the original source. Some ever so slightly technical problems such as aliasing and minor Edge Enhancement mar what is otherwise a great presentation.
For sound we have the original English 2.0 DD track which delivers as it should, but is in this rare instance eclipsed by a brilliant 5.1 surround remix. In terms of separation this is where it excels, as every moment is channelled in a timely and effective manner. Dialogue is kept centrally for the most part and remains crisp, while sound effects seem to pop up all over the place and give a good feel of distance in accordance to where the characters are placed. Drew Neumann’s score gives the series a lot of weight and for this new mix it has some added bass which gives the subwoofer a decent workout.
With the bulk of extras being housed on disc 3 this leaves discs 1 and 2 with audio commentaries. Peter Chung appears for most of them, with producers taking turns or writer Mark Mars and director Howard Baker turning up, with a little output from principal voice actors. The tracks are solid efforts and are lively enough, though they might not reveal as much as fans would like them to. You certainly won’t find any meaningful explanations behind the storylines, but you will get enough insight into the production of the series and its structuring.
Moving on to the third disc we start with the “Aeon Flux Pilot” (12.24). This comes with an optional commentary from Chung and Drew Neumann, along with a choice of 2.0 or 5.1 surround sound. Accompanied by Neumann’s memorable score the pilot offers little more than all out action, but it’s a captivating piece of work. The “Aeon Flux Shorts” (20.18 in total) come next and these are the original Liquid Television features. They can be viewed together or individually, and like all other episodes come with optional commentary and the choice of 2.0 or 5.1 sound. The “Featurettes” comprise of Investigation: The History of Aeon Flux and The Deviant Devices of Aeon Flux. The former (17.37) takes us on a little history tour as we learn of its inception and further development into a full series. There are some interesting bits and pieces and its well put together considering its brief length. The Devices section (6.07) takes a look at Aeon’s weaponry and gadgets and is narrated by Denise Poirier, who provides the voice of Aeon and talks in character here. There are a few quips but ultimately this isn’t very interesting unless you’re a hardcore weapon fan. “Other Works by Peter Chung” includes an MTV Loaded Promo, Aeon Flux CD-ROM Commercial and a stylish advertisement for the Honda Coupe Mission. A collection of sketches, storyboards, stills and tests can be found next. At 12.46 the “Liquid Television Shorts” is a nice addition, although I wished for more. Included in this collection are episodes for The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo, The Art School Girls of Doom and Invisible Hands, with Dear Mum segments in-between. Here’s hoping that Paramount actually put out the entire series one day. Finally the previews consist of trailers for Jackass, Wildboyz and Viva LaBam.
Aeon Flux is a very intriguing and unique looking show that to this day offers something a little challenging for those into their animation or otherwise. Its ideas at the time were certainly different and brave enough, although not always new and in later years we’ve seen them being developed to far greater success, even if they might not be just. Now is as perfect a time as any for it to be released on DVD so that folk can check out a series that kick-started a trend.