Welcome to MEL’s “Women of Action” series, a week-long deep dive into five landmark action films made by female filmmakers. Far too often, writers have fixated on what women look like in the action genre — instead, I’ll be unpacking the creative influence that these five filmmakers have had behind the camera. As such, every day, I’m taking a look at one female filmmaker who has made a groundbreaking action film, as producers, auteurs, upstarts and finally, as breakthroughs, and attempting to outline their creative influence and impact on the genre, in some of the most notable (one way or the other) action films ever made.
Today, we’re taking a look at Æon Flux, which left promising indie director Karyn Kusama clawing her career back from the brink. Æon Flux, which cost $65 million to make (and more to advertise and market) didn’t even gross half that domestically, taking in $25.9 million here in the States and $52.3 million worldwide for Paramount and MTV Films. Justin Chang at Variety called it “spectacularly silly,” and Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly said that while star Charlize Theron cut an “arresting image,” she was, “stranded in a trashy and derivative glum zone of fashion runway fascism.”
Lou Lumenick at the New York Post gave it 0 out of 4 stars, and declared it the year’s worst movie, describing the film as, “ineptly directed by the inexperienced Karyn Kusama — whose only previous film, the boxing drama Girlfight, caused a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, if nowhere else.” Even positive reviews of the film were hedged: At Slate, David Edelstein raved, “not that terrible.”
The story of Æon Flux, then, isn’t a triumph. It would be hard to argue that the notorious bomb is “influential,” but its story is an important one — a cautionary tale, a fable about the pitfalls of Hollywood, adaptation and studio interference. Kusama has managed to emerge from the wreckage of this high-profile disaster, fighting her way back and coming out on the other side, making auteurist, challenging films about complex women in a cruel world.
Kusama could be seen as a phoenix rising from the ashes of Æon Flux, but there’s much more to it than mere transformation: She’s a survivor, fighting her way to a career on her terms like the pugnacious Diana Guzman, the heroine of her debut feature, the aforementioned Sundance award-winning Girlfight. That film was inspired by Kusama’s experiences at a Brooklyn boxing gym, and she fundraised for the film’s $1 million budget herself, with an assist from her former boss, indie filmmaker John Sayles, who put up most of the budget himself. The film proved to be one of the first victims of the so-called “Sundance effect,” winning major awards at the festival, earning a high-profile $3 million acquisition by Screen Gems, only to flop at the box office with a less than impressive $1.6 million in box-office returns.
When I reached out to ask Kusama to discuss Æon Flux, her first big studio feature after her debut, she declined with a heartfelt and vulnerable message, describing the experience of making the film as one she would never trade away, but also one of “intense heartbreak and deep personal disappointment.” She didn’t want to once again put the negative energy into the world that it would require to rehash the making of the film — much of that experience was detailed in a lengthy 2015 profile for BuzzFeed by Adam B. Vary, released on the eve of Kusama’s comeback with the indie thriller The Invitation. That film was written by Kusama’s husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, whom Kusama met and collaborated with for the first time on Æon Flux, and they’ve worked together since then (Hay and Manfredi also wrote Kusama’s latest feature, the gritty Nicole Kidman-starring cop drama Destroyer). The Invitation signaled the beginning of the Kusama-ssance, after the critical and box office failures of Æon Flux and the sly feminist horror comedy Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, penned by Diablo Cody.
Jennifer’s Body has found life since as a cult movie, heralded as deeply misunderstood and misrepresented at the time of its release. In 2019, for the film’s 10th anniversary, Vulture writer Jordan Crucchiola assembled Kusama and Fox for a screening and Q&A about the film’s reappraisal at L.A.’s premier genre festival, Beyond Fest.
But no such appreciation or cult followings have cropped up around Æon Flux, a film that remains deeply strange and pretty silly — a stylish but tonal mish-mash that fails to capture the creepy and mysterious tone of the cult MTV animated series by Peter Chung. As Theron told Variety in 2017, “We fucked it all up… I just don’t think we really knew how to execute it. And it’s disappointing, but it happens.” Kusama described the experience to BuzzFeed a bit more painfully, calling it “eviscerating.” No one involved was happy with the final product. Hay and Manfredi lamented the final cut, which was a full 30 minutes shorter than Kusama’s version, with Hay saying, “in tone, pace, style and character development, there are some big departures.”
Chung never liked the script to begin with, saying, “The movie is a travesty. I was unhappy when I read the script four years ago; seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theater made me feel helpless, humiliated and sad.” But he lays the blame on the studio that wanted to make a big, mainstream action film, which he felt missed the intention of his cerebral series, saying, “It’s possible to make good unconventional films; it’s also very hard. In any case, if you’re going to risk failure, I say do it boldly, with conviction. The problem with the movie is its failure of nerve.”
The indelible images of Chung’s mostly dialogue-free animated series Æeon Flux still haunt the psyches of younger Gen-Xers and older millennials who caught the short episodes bookended by clips of Beavis and Butthead and The Head, on MTV’s adult animation bloc Liquid Television, which ran from 1991 to 1995. The dark, ambiguous and weirdly sexy episodic animated series took place centuries in the future, after an environmental collapse. Rebel spy Æon Flux slithered around in strappy fetish gear while trying to take down her nemesis/lover Trevor Goodchild, a scientist and the autocratic leader of the city of Bregna. Occasionally, Æon would die at the end of an episode, only to pop back up alive again in the next one.
Chung, an animator working on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats at the time, was sick of rendering short, squat babies, and wanted to draw some long, lithe, athletic figures. He was also taking in a lot of Expressionist art, including the work of Egon Schiele, which is probably why Æon’s creepy, crawly, sensual movements bear a bit of a passing resemblance to Conrad Veidt in the classic German Expressionist silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The look of and tone of the animated series is so unique that it seems nigh impossible to faithfully adapt that to a big budget, live-action feature aimed at a mainstream audience (and yet, MTV, Teen Wolf showrunner Jeff Davis, and one of the film’s producers, our previous entrant Gale Anne Hurd, are going to try to develop a new series). Basically, Kusama, Hay, Manfredi and Theron never stood a chance with their version, especially not with the kind of studio interference that plagued the production in post.
With Æeon Flux, Kusama always intended to make a thoughtful, elegant and, yes, emotional sci-fi picture (even if Chung’s series was far more nihilist than romantic). As Vary describes for BuzzFeed, what Kusama delivered to Paramount was “a challenging sci-fi romantic thriller with the thoughtful pacing of a highbrow Asian martial arts film.” That version was cut to shreds after supportive Paramount head Sherry Lansing departed the studio, and Brad Grey and Gail Berman took over. It’s hard to point fingers as to who did what, because there are no specifics in the retelling, but what we do know is that Paramount didn’t like the film Kusama made, cut it cut down to 71 minutes, then — realizing that version was even worse — allowed her to return, heavily supervised, to oversee a new cut (the final version is 93 minutes).
Kusama told Vary that, “huge swatches of storyline, which gave the movie a kind of emotional weight, were completely removed.” As to the reception, and that single digit 9 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, it didn’t help that Paramount didn’t screen the film for critics, which tends to poison the well. As Hay says, not screening for critics is “fait accompli. You’re going to get negative reviews, and this prevents a real discourse on the film.”
Kusama relayed to Vary that after Æon Flux bombed, her agents, “told her in a singsong, jokey tone that she was ‘in movie jail now.’” For two years after the release of Æon Flux, the only directing gig Kusama got was an episode of The L Word, before the script for Jennifer’s Body came her way. The only thing she directed between that film in 2009 and 2015’s The Invitation (a $1 million indie funded by Gamechanger Films, which finances movies directed by women) was a short, Speechless.
The threat of “movie jail” or “director’s jail” is very real, and is a much higher stakes game for female directors than male directors, who are all too often extended second chances after major failures. Kusama is keenly aware of that, telling Vary, that for female directors, “each movie represents some kind of finality, potentially, to their career, as opposed to the sense of you have hits, and you have misses. … I’m very conscious of how frequently great artists in film who are male and are also generally called ‘big personalities’ get to fail.”
Watching Aeon Flux today, you can see why it doesn’t work. The dialogue is ponderous, and the world-building feels thin. Critics of the film argue that it doesn’t preserve Æon’s independent nature, her moral complexity or the dark ugliness of the world that Chung created, which depicted authoritarianism in a dystopian future with a perspective that forced viewers to confront the honesty of violence and warfare, as well as the nuanced nature of each character. In the film, Hay and Manfredi crafted a story of a love spanning centuries of cloning through time. They also saddled Æon with a dead sister to situate her actions as an emotionally-motivated revenge story.
The film doesn’t have the ugly, gray Soviet-era aesthetic as Chung depicted Bregna, but rather, it’s a colorful, modernist visual feast, and this is where flourishes of stylistic vision do emerge. Kusama wanted to shoot in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil known for its striking modernist architecture, but producers put the kibosh on that, saying the city didn’t have the infrastructure for a massive production. Instead, they shot in Potsdam, Germany, at Studio Babelsberg, and at various modern architecture landmarks around Germany, including the Bauhaus Archive museum, the Francisco Serrano-designed Mexican Embassy in Berlin, the Windkanal, the Treptow Crematorium and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt museum. Kusama’s vision of the dystopian future is sleek, beautiful and bright: The colors of the film are bold, the black-clad form of Æon standing out against the backdrop of organically-curving poured concrete structures and abundant nature. One of the climatic showdowns takes place among the shocking pink of a cherry blossom orchard in full bloom, suggesting both feminine power and the blush of fertility, and also seems a nod to the lush martial arts films of the time, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
Probably the best thing about Æon Flux is Theron’s physical performance, gifted as she is for mimicry and embodying characters, as she does in her Oscar-winning performance as Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster, directed by Patty Jenkins, and in her Oscar-nominated channeling of Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. Theron inhabits the screen with a catlike physicality, bringing to life the long, athletic limbs of the animated character. It also must be acknowledged that Æon Flux proved to be Theron’s first proving ground for her chops as a headlining action star, the genre in which she has carved out a groove for herself recently, with Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and now, The Old Guard.
Besides that performance, is there anything to be salvaged from Aeon Flux? Or is it merely one of the many gauntlets that a talented director had to fight through?
Kusama is that rare female director who has managed to walk through the fire of not one, not two, but three releases with disappointing box office returns, and has astonishingly clawed her way to the other side as an accomplished indie filmmaker, with a career on her own terms. It’s not surprising that Kusama would prefer to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past, but Æon Flux still deserved an autopsy to determine the true cause of death, rather than laying the burden of blame on Kusama’s shoulders — there is value in understanding the external forces that made that film what it is, and seeing the ways in which it laid the groundwork for a pioneering female action star in Theron.
Perhaps the cult appreciation is yet to come (or at least a director’s cut).