The second film in my Analysis of The Films of Karyn Kusama is the dystopian dialectical sci fi flop Aeon Flux. Adapted from the series of the same name, this film version was a chance for Kusama to prove her grit by successfully helming a big budget studio film of a beloved property, while showing that such adaptations can be developed with an arthouse flair, years before the concept was a known commodity. Unfortunately, the film was not created nor received in the spirit of the original film pitch, nor its source material. This paper seeks to understand the historical context in which these decisions were made, while looking at the sociological concepts of the film, and the consequences of the film’s fallout, which impacted Kusama longer than her fellow male directors.
In 2415, a soldier in a rebel faction against its Orwellian government attempts to assassinate their dictator. Finding that she is uncharacteristically unwilling and unable to complete the mission, Aeon Flux (Theron), searches for answers and uncovers the truth about life and death; a secret that threatens to shake the last human city of Bregna down to its core. Alienated from both the Government and the rebels, Aeon Flux must make unlikely allies in hopes for survival for herself and the rest of humanity.
The original Aeon Flux was a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adult animation created and directed by Peter Chung. The plot centered around the warring factions of the last two human cities: Monica and Bregna. Where Bregna was a totalitarian nightmare of rigid order, Monica was based on anarchistic hedonism. The series follows Aeon through various missions to ultimately kill the sovereign leader, Trevor Goodchild. Not only were Aeon and Trevor constructed as the typical protagonists and antagonists, but also their opposite, the exception to their identity and skill set. Aeon, a master assassin, and warrior can do anything, except kill Treavor. Treavor, a Brilliant Scientist, and military tactician, can have anything he wants, except the thing he wants the most, which is Aeon. Each encounter between them played on this tension leading to sex, betrayal, and violence, often all three at the same time. Throughout the shorts and the series, the audience vacillates their allegiances from Aeon to Treavor and back again; highlighting that they are both despicable people in pursuit of their own goal(s).
The series was originally presented as a combination of shorts and a limited series broadcasted by MTV as apart of their “Liquid Television” line up from 1991-1995. This series, especially the original shorts, captivated the attention of viewers because of the animation’s fluid and BDSM influenced sexuality and violence. Because Chung never desired an adaptation of his work, most of the shorts included the death of Aeon, which confused the audience as to how the stories were being told, for even though Aeon seemed to die, the story still progressed, sometimes continuing with Aeon, and sometimes with other soldiers. It was eventually revealed/retconned that both cities had invented and implemented cloning technology and used it against their enemy.
Marketed and chiefly consumed by Generation X, (1964-1980) Aeon Flux, the series, was one of the few at the time that had a broader perspective on war and violence that mirrored the anti-war, cold war despair felt by the latchkey kids of pro capitalist Boomers. In the first short, as Aeon Flux runs through a factory indiscriminately murdering all of the soldiers in her path, the story leaves her and makes the audience sit in the carnage that she created. In the aftermath, gravely wounded soldiers find each other and spend their last few moments together before dying of their injuries. The short continues following the crew tasked with cleaning up the massacre and return everything to Bregna’s pristine totalitarian order. This is one of the first US animated series with a clear anti-authoritarian message, forcing the audience to sit in the inevitable collateral damage of war of which Gen X were so emboldened to resist. It was a perfect counter cultural moment for the quintessential dissonant generation.
First announced in 2003, the film was the brainchild of Shelly Lansing at Paramount Pictures. She brought on Karyn Kusama just after her brilliant debut in Girlfight. In the beginning, Kusama’s indie female focused sensibilities seem to be in lock step with the animated characterization of Aeon, and the characterization and tone Lansing was going for… and she was hoping to reteam Kusama with Michelle Rodriguez in the titular role. The role eventually went to Charlize Theron coming off of her Oscar win for Monster, adding even more indie drama credibility. Yet, regardless of executive enthusiasm, and the acquisition of award-winning director and star, the film became fraught with problems that plagued the film from all aspects of production.
The first hiccup came when Kusama began to scout locations for the bulk of the shoot. Kusama’s initial choice of location was Brasilia, Brazil; believing it to fit the aesthetic of Bregna. This was summarily rejected by the studio citing both the expense and the unsubstantiated belief that the city could not sustain the budget and scope of the production. Given that this was Kusama’s second film, and first studio picture, she did not have the clout to make a final decision on the matter. Like many indie directors on their sophomore outing, they have to prove themselves to be “bankable” to a studio. Therefore, many directors in this position are ostensibly directors-for-hire because of how little impact and input they have on the film. This became apparent the deeper Aeon Flux went into production.
The next hiccup came during principal photography. After reading a copy of the script, Peter Chung, publicly denounced the adaptation, saying that “[He] did not see Aeon in this film.” To his point, the writers of Aeon Flux, Phill Hay and Matt Manfredi, were the same writers behind award winning hits like RIPD (the Ryan Reynolds Jeff Bridges travesty about a supernatural police force) and Ride Along (the buddy movie starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart). Yet, chagriningly, this is also the writing team for most of Kusama’s body of work (except Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body). Kusama met Hay during production and were married a year later. To square this cognitive dissonance, one must take into consideration their entire collaborative body of work. In that context, aside from this film, which Kusama had little control over, by far the best stuff that Hay and Manfredi have written, has been with Kusama. This could be due to the chemistry and unlikely symmetry between Kusama and Hay, that they just understand each other so completely that it elevates their work. Or, more likely, it was less an equally collaborative affair, and more Kusama’s influence on their future writing partnership.
The third and final hiccup, and one that signaled the film’s asphyxiation, came during postproduction. During the editing of the film, producer Shelly Lansing, the biggest champion of Kusama’s vision for the film, left the company and was replaced by Donald Doline. After the first round of edits, Donald Doline left and was replaced by Brad Gray and Gayle Brenneman. Thus, because production companies are motivated by profits, each new producer took the film away from Kusama and heavily edited it. Of Kusama’s 105-minute R-Rated cut, Gray and Breneman eventually created a 71-minute PG-13 film to try and widen the market for the film’s release. After the producer cut got horribly reviewed at a preview screening, they brought Kusama back to re-cut the film, but exclusively NOT to her original vision. It was because of this experience that Kusama now demands final cut on all her projects, even if it means a pay cut.
Unbeknownst to Kusama at the time, the unraveling of Aeon Flux was a symptom of Corporate Capitalism. In 2002-2005, the production time of the film, Viacom, the parent company of Paramount, was going through massive restructuring; splitting, and merging various parts of themselves to avoid repeating anti-trust litigation they once faced in 1948. Because of this, executives were moved around in a shell game of corporate responsibilities and profit consolidation. Yet, in this profit driven system, many of these new executives, to show their value and worth to the company, came up with new ideas and edits for the films under their purview, while ignoring what their predecessors did; regardless of if the ideas were good or not. This reinforces the importance of context in pop culture criticism, lest we forget that the film is a product of the conditions under which it was made. Thus, it should be no surprise that a film like Aeon Flux was created at a time of greed and corporate malfeasance.
Kusama being a “hired gun” on Aeon Flux resulted in a lot of the socially relevant and sociological themes that will be consistent across her later work, to be sparse here and muddled in their presentation. A lot of the interesting ideas that this film touches on, are not well conceived or given much weight, even though they are the central foundation for the setting of the film. Thus, this film attempts to touch on fascism, totalitarianism, bodies and their biopower without conscientiously engaging with them.
Aeon Flux, like a lot of sci-fi films take the imagery and the rhetoric of Orwell’s 1984 as a shorthand for despotic futurism. Yet, these films often only use that imagery as window dressing rather than conducting a thorough interrogation. In this context, Orwell’s 1984 is dime store Max Weber with a sprinkling of C. Wright Mills.
According to Kelner (1984) The differences between Orwell and Weber are subtle, but present:
Unlike Max Weber, Orwell does not conceive of bureaucracy as containing its own dynamics, its own rationality, or its own contradictions. Consequently, especially in 1984, Orwell reinforces the predominantly conservative-individualist vision that the state and bureaucracy per se are repressive and serve to concentrate power in a bureaucratic caste. For Orwell, power and the will to power are depicted as the prime goal of a bureaucratic society and the primary motivation for party bureaucrats. Power is not a means but is an end in itself, the end or telos of at least the political elite's individual and societal behavior. Revolution, in this picture, is primarily a project of seizing power and establishing a new class of party bureaucrats whose primary goal is maintaining their own power. For Max Weber, by contrast, bureaucracy contained a certain amount of logic and rationality and was part of a process of rationalization and modernization which produced at least some social benefits and progress (i.e. rational calculation, predictability, law, governance by rules rather than force, etc.)
Whereas Orwell narratively constructs a Bureaucracy as a conscious enemy of the people, and a focal point for revolution away from it, Weber understands that a lot of social control is the most effective through noninvasive coercion, rather than direct oppression. Weber (2019) knew that direct oppression would increase the likelihood of resistance. To curb resistance, the bureaucracy traps individuals into an endless cycle of routines and standardized behavior, the Weberian “Iron Cage”, to make the people more pliable (Weber 2019). For Orwell, the bureaucracy is a mustache twirling villain with morose machinations. Instead, Weber (2019) realizes that the true terror of a bureaucratic composition is in its banality, and apathy towards its prisoners. Because it is not about the people trapped, it is about the continuation of the system.
The crux of the difference between an Orwellian narrative and a Weberian Perspective is that between an individualist and collectivist perspective. Orwell assumes that individual people desiring power are the driving force of the domination and oppression of the system. Weber, on the other hand, understands that systems, once developed and implemented, do not emphasize individuals beyond just a resource to keep the system operating. The domination and oppression in the Weberian system is an afterthought of the mechanisms of control implemented upon individuals, to make society operate with calculably efficient rationality (Weber 2019). Upon closer examination, the common system that Orwell describes seems to fit more with C. Wright Mills idea of The Power Elite; a predatory system that keeps power in the hands of a few, while actively oppressing others. Yet, because Mills (1956) is a student of Weber, he does not place too much value in the importance of the individuals in power because they can be cycled out. The position within the institution of power is more important than who holds the seat.
Bodies, Reproduction and Bio Power
The film’s revelation that the consciousness of the citizens in Bregna are recycled into different bodies as they age and die, points to the execution of Foucauldian Biopower over the populace. Biopower is the ability for individuals, organizations, or systems to have control over how a person experiences and defines their body (Foucault 1977). In a very direct sense, this can be expressed through controlling when people eat, sleep, use the restroom etc. This usually takes place in Total Institutions.
According to Goffman (1961):
A Total Institution is a particular type of social institution within the social order. This is a hybrid between a residential community and formal organization
1) All aspects of social life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority
2) Each phase of the member’s daily activity is in the immediate company of a large batch of others
3) All activities are tightly scheduled
4) All forced activities are brought together in a single rational plan to fulfill the aims of the institution.
5) Person is often excluded from knowledge and decision regarding their fate.
Total institution’s control allows them to be easily harnessed by would-be or established dictators. This is accounted for in the film when Trevor Goodchild, the scientist that created the cure for the genocidal virus, became the ruler for over 400 years. In that time, the biopower he administered was a moratorium on natural pregnancy with an over reliance on cloning. This overreliance on cloning led to the fraying of recycled psyches resulting in developing madness and eventual death. However, Goodchild’s brother (an original character for the film to which all of Trevor’s “bad” qualities from the series could be grafted), believing that the totalitarian system is perfect, ultimately sabotages the reemergence of natural births through the murder of expectant mothers.
The film’s antagonist exercising of biopower, to maintain the population, is of the very real social problem of the rollback of reproductive rights for women in the US. Outside of the directness the act of murder represents in the film, the general denial of natural births can be interestingly paralleled with the birth enforcement enacted in ½ of US states after the overturning of Roe. in June of 2022. Just as the people of Bregna were forced to relive their lives and have their consciousness recycled through cloning (while openly eliminating natural births), so too are US women in ½ the states in the country forced to carry a child to term: regardless of the effect on the health of the mother, even rape survivors as young as 10, nor the quality of life for the child after birth. This parallel is just one of many made between current US politics and various examples of misogynistically despotic pop culturein recent years; all of which should be met with alarm. Unfortunately, rather than get outraged at such an apt comparison, the result of this widely consumed and eerily prophetic form of entertainment is one of normalized acceptance rather than indignation. And, so long as our real politics do not exclusively copy the imagery of pop culture, they will be used as an unfair comparison; minimizing the impact of these decisions and shrouding the failure of allowing Supreme Court Justices to legislate from the bench to circumvent the democratic process. We will say “Well, at least its not exactly like Handmaid’s Tale.” Or more likely: “Those women Protesting in Handmaid’s outfits are embellishing/ being overly dramatic. The US constant consumption of content has not only eroded our imaginations, but for comparisons to be considered apt in our culture, they must also be literal. Otherwise, the analogy is left open for criticism, especially a dismissal as hyperbole.
Hollywood double standards…no surprise.
After the release and subsequent implosion of Aeon Flux, Karyn Kusama languished in “director jail” for years. This is a state of limbo filmmakers get put into after a notable or typically horrendous film is poorly received by both audiences and critics. Incarcerated directors are given few offers to direct projects, and any personal or independent projects they have will not gain traction. Unfortunately, but to no one’s surprise, female directors often are given longer sentences than male directors. Since the patriarchy tends to see women in occupations to be niche, and therefore both being too specific and too general at the same time, the industry is unwilling to “take a chance” on another “female director.” Meanwhile, if male directors get sent to “jail” they often do not stay long, constantly giving many of them another shot. However, there has been an increasing trend of male directors being allowed to fail upwards. In these situations, male directors don’t go to jail, they’re given the industry equivalent of diplomatic immunity. No matter what these director’s make, and regardless of how well their film is received they are given bigger budgets, more control, and greater desired IP.
This double standard exists because of the patriarchy valuing men and their perspective over any other. Therefore, men are given ample opportunities to express themselves, or if they make a mistake, correct their behavior by the simple “virtue” of being men. We see this in every industry from business executives, teachers, authors etc. In film, men are given near unlimited chances to succeed, and when their projects or personal proclivities fall short, meaning they turn out to be rapists, abusers and assaulters, there is a codified redemption model that they can follow to make their comeback. Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr. Aziz Ansari and Louis C. K. have all used it. Male directors are specifically lauded and exalted usually because at least one of their films are so revered that the director is later deified. Conversely, the reality for female directors is the opposite. If female directors make a well received well reviewed film, the industry automatically treats it like a fluke, and the female director will have to work twice as hard, and will be under greater scrutiny on their second, and any future projects.
Aeon Flux is not a good film. It has pacing issues, a thin story, regardless of the foundational source material, the action is full of wire work and edited quickly to hide poor choreography and the dialogue is atrocious. Sociologically, there are a lot of interesting things that this film touches on but does not delve into with any meaningful depth. None of the responsibility for this should have been laid at the feet of Karyn Kusama. It is not her fault, but she bared the brunt of the consequences; taking her another 4 years to be offered another film. Imagine if she was given another opportunity sooner than that, and what if she was encouraged to keep writing and directing her own work? It is another common story of Hollywood dispossessing another female Hollywood auteur in favor of the fraternal order of fragile filmmakers.
Foucault, Michel 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison new York: Vintage Books
Goffman, Erving 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books
Kelner, Douglas 1984. “From 1984 to One-Dimensional Man: Critical Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse” Retrieved at https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell13.htm Retrieved on 11/5/2022
Mills, C. Wright 2000. The Power Elite New York: Oxford University Press
Weber, Max 2019. Economy and Society: A New Translation Massachusetts, Harvard University Press
 Goffman (1961) Asylums
 (12 states Abortion is illegal, and in an additional 13 states, laws are openly hostile to abortion access)
 The Handmaid’s Tale being the common example, and used often in protests