“Revolutionaries need an oppressive establishment to thrive, just as governments need hidden enemies to justify stricture.” – Peter Chung, creator of Æon Flux
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From 1991 to 1995, when the network was possibly still culturally provocative, MTV aired an animation anthology called Liquid Television. Often remembered as the incubator where the beloved idiots Beavis and Butthead were born, Liquid Television is perhaps better framed as forefather to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim – an oddball, short-attention-span variety show intended to showcase the many talents and aesthetics currently emerging from animation and comedy undergrounds. Back then, that meant plenty of Gen-X slackerdom and cable-safe versions of the Sick and Twisted, but the show was a true grab bag of styles and formats. There was the boyish ultraviolence of shorts like “Rocky” and “Jac Mac and Rad-Boy, Go!” Arch neonoir vignettes like “Brad Dharma: Psychedelic Detective” and “Psycho-Gram.” There were puppets, live- and stop-action, and plenty of one-offs and classics to help fill the half-hour. In the words of the creative director, Japhet Asher, it was “part fun house, part laboratory experiment.”
Despite the inclusivity of this programming model, Peter Chung’s Æon Flux has always parsed as an outlier. Though its original conception as a parody of the American action movie would sit nicely among so many spoofs, the end product is less a parody than a critique, and it is much more than just critique. Its concerns are too philosophical, its technique too rigorous, its narratives too surprising, even in what would turn out to be its earlier, more nascent form – a series of wordless vignettes about espionage in a technocratic retrofuture of monorails, penthouses, offshore drilling operations, crashed spaceships, and underground facilities. The fact that the show’s protagonist – a lithe, raven-haired infiltrix who always meets her end in a twist that’s half-poetic, half-slapstick – is a woman is enough to set the show apart.
But the show went much further than that, depicting a woman with a full, complex eroticism. Whereas most cartoons of the era, Liquid or not, use sex as a punchline to caricature the stunted pubescence of its manchildren – imagine Butthead mouthbreathing the word “boobs” – or swaps out sex for the noble pinings of a nice guy who maybe this time won’t finish last, in Æon Flux, sex is omnipresent, complicated, and explicitly (albeit abstractly) about power. The protagonist wears the barely-there bikini and thigh-high boots of many a sci-fi damsel or spy femme fatale, but its patent black leather and restraining straps indicate this is as much about her pleasure (and pain) as ours. She is less interested in penetrative sex than she is in fetishized withholdings: tonguing, tickling, voyeurism, and other, less-defined pleasures. In the cramped quarters of an elevator, she switches positions with an allied spy, a woman with a long blonde ponytail that elicits a deep moan from the protagonist as it esses past her mouth. The closest thing she has to a lover is also her nemesis, a stony-faced doctor who is constantly compromising her missions with his own ambiguous agenda. Sometimes their objectives align, but this doesn’t make the difference between the doctor kissing the protagonist (“Gravity”) or killing her (“Mirror”).
Sexual intrigue and moral ambiguity are familiar preoccupations of the spy genre, but in the show’s wordless, shortened form, any and all tropes are distilled to their essence and then blown out of proportion. In the show’s eponymous first vignette, the protagonist infiltrates enemy headquarters guns blazing, killing with such acrobatic grace that the bodies quite literally pile up and blood pools until it must be waded through. This death is such a spectacle it manages to distract the narrative frame, which lingers on the dead – their bodies, their dying hallucinations, even the final tenderness of two star-crossed lovers-cum-soldiers (a theme revisited in the final vignette, “War”) – but this isn’t to suggest a covert humanism is at play. The day is saved, not because the protagonist completes her mission, but because the doctor stages its saving in classic form, manufacturing a poison so he can sell the antidote. His plan is so successful that he ends up on the nation’s currency, while the protagonist falls to her death after stepping on a bent nail, a baldly ironic pratfall after all that effortless, choreographed killing, and is reincarnated on the cover of a tickle fetishist magazine to be paid for by the aforementioned currency.
In the compressed space of the vignette, these surprises come rapid-fire, double- and triple-crossing expectations so quickly they tend to blur the show’s already-arch sense of reality. In the opening of the second vignette, “Gravity,” the protagonist and the doctor share a microfilm by tonguing the tiny scroll between false teeth as they kiss across the wavering gap between a hurtling monorail and an airship keeping apace over a vast red-rock canyon. It’s a breathless stunt more hyperbolic than its possible referents, of which there are many, stacked atop one another, dissolving into one another, hybridizing. It’s a spy-movie moment transposed to the Martian Southwest of pulp sci-fi, and whatever romanticism the kiss may evoke is swallowed up by the grotesquerie of showing it from inside the protagonist’s mouth, the two tongues going at it like giant slugs conducting a mating dance. Again, the vignette ends with the protagonist falling to her death – the fall is most of the episode – surprising with comic repetition when we might expect some subtle novelty.
This is all to say that, not unlike its protagonist, Æon Flux gets off on toying with expectation, even if that means subverting its own subversions, the spy who turns herself in as part of a yet more complicated scheme. The show’s creator, Peter Chung, sees this as an attempt at building the visual equivalent of the “psychological and formal complexity” of writers like “Borges, Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet and Kafka,” and, despite the weight behind those names, the comparison is apt, especially to Borges. Æon Flux’s run on Liquid Television is a collection of dense, labyrinthine miniatures that are constantly pulling the rug out from beneath themselves. In their brevity and abstraction, their desire to surprise above all else, they approximate poems, albeit prose poems – working with more rigid, logical structures.
It also makes sense, then, that Æon Flux would grow into something more novelistic, spinning off into its own show in 1995. Officially listed as Season 3, the format was 10 30-minute episodes that gave names, voices, and national allegiances to the two characters that received the most attention in the Liquid Television vignettes: Æon, the aforementioned protagonist, citizen of Monica, an anarchic nation that is constantly sending spies to infiltrate its walled-off, autocratic neighbor, Bregna, which has, as of the first episode, been swiftly and quietly overtaken by Æon’s nemesis and lover, the doctor, Trevor Goodchild. There are other named characters, who, while dimensional and sympathetic, don’t recur across episodes, giving the sense that they are ultimately disposable, pawns in some larger game.
The game has only two players, Æon and Trevor, and while the rules and stakes are murky, the starting positions are the same. Every episode begins in medias res, Trevor with an outlandish scheme for control that Æon will attempt to defuse by entangling herself in its web. Slipping past border defense systems, bombing manufacturing plants, freeing political prisoners, and, more often than not, confronting and confounding Trevor directly. Trevor claims he lets Æon cross into Bregna to conduct her terror campaigns, that there is a bigger picture you aren’t aware of. Though she doesn’t ham it up for the camera like Trevor does, Æon is toeing similar lines between offense and defense, scheme and improvisation. In “A Last Time for Everything,” she lets Trevor clone her and swaps places with the clone to toy with Trevor, but the two Æons’ interests diverge, and she ends up literally deceiving herself.
The more the pendulum swings and deceptions yield to counterdeceptions and countercounterdeceptions, the more the viewer senses that the goal of the game is to be forever played, the ultimate gratification always just out of reach. In one of the show’s many overbarbed stichomythia:
Æon: The alien is using you Trevor, can’t you see that? How can you stand to be controlled?
Trevor: I would rather be under control than out of control like you, but of course, I am in control.
Æon: Wrong again. It seems to me that I have the control so I’m making the choices.
Trevor: Æon, if I wanted the control back I’d have it by now.
Æon: And I would steal it again.
They argue in circles and on circular logic, going tit-for-tat without either gaining the upper hand for very long. In what feels like every episode, one of the characters is backed up against the wall but manages to elude capture nonetheless, eliciting a furtive smile from the other. In some sense, it’s a realization of Æon’s sexual predilections from the first two seasons. The dual pleasure and pain of edging ever closer toward what you want but never getting it, writ large on an international scale.
It’s a grand stage, but as the frame keeps snapping back onto Æon and Trevor, it becomes increasingly clear that the twin nations are mostly there to represent the main characters’ values and impulses. Monica is leaderless, a collection of liberated individuals, while Bregna is autocratic, its residents homogeneous down to the food they eat (spoonfuls of cabbage). Bregna does all it can to keep the line between us and them clear with its border defense system, while Monicans treat the border as a formality and an inconvenience. In Monica, sex is out in the open, whereas Breens are more repressed, even after Trevor’s Total Information Awareness campaign (“Counselor Galen, you know the rules …”). Bregna craves control, Monica wants events and lives to unfold freely.
Making good on the show’s Gnostic references, the two opposites comprise a syzygy, but they are more yin-yang than simple binary, each containing and reciprocating parts of the other. Monican clothing, though sleek and revealing, is equally binding, mocking and enjoying the control the Breens wish they had. Æon would like to believe in her free will, but frequently puts herself in double binds that Trevor is all too happy to point out. If Monicans are indeed free, why are their agents so fixated on insurgency in Bregna? Trevor lectures with a placid stoicism but is prone to outbursts and tantrums when things don’t go his way. Æon’s provocations can be glib and callous, as if she is beyond binary of good and evil, but again and again she proves to be soft-hearted, going out of her way to protect the side characters Trevor uses and discards. As Trevor and Æon both say to one another, “You have only half the picture.”
Though they wouldn’t admit to knowing this, Æon and Trevor’s dualism is codependent. As Peter Chung (channeling Baudrillard) observes in an interview: “Revolutionaries need an oppressive establishment to thrive, just as governments need hidden enemies to justify stricture,” but they’re more than symbolic stand-ins. What’s especially interesting about Æon and Trevor’s relationship is how deep their mutual understanding goes. In “A Last Time for Everything,” when Æon first switches places with her clone, she pretends to be an imperfect copy – listless, docile, submissive – knowing this will send Trevor’s head spinning (“Did something go wrong? No, it’s not possible.”) and ultimately turn him off. Seeing Trevor’s disappointment and pain (her own pleasure) leads Æon to his bedchamber, where the act becomes her reality, and the original but softened Æon slips into a real romance with a similarly changed Trevor.
It’s a striking, tender turn, but they’re equally likely to use this understanding against one another. In the final episode, “End Sinister” (a wink so obvious even Nabokov might cringe), Trevor is seduced by an alien and makes plans to follow “her” to her home planet. Æon, recognizing this would be the end of the game, can’t help but reveal her need as she pleads with him to stay. She fails to persuade Trevor and ends up firing a doomsday device she’d originally stopped Trevor from using, all because he quit their game, thinking (wrongfully) he could replace it with another. Æon, ever the individualist, acts on her desires throughout the show, but never has she been so petty, so vengeful as when she faces the possibility of actual independence. Their relationship is toxic, but it’s hard not to feel pathos when the characters are nothing without the other.
So while the show offers a rich sci-fi tableau with plenty of overt symbolism, you get the sense that Chung has a contentious relationship to Pamela Sargent’s claim that sci-fi is “a literature of ideas.” Aliens, clones, doomsday devices, a glowing blue deity known as the Demiurge – there’s something deliberately silly in how Æon Flux tours the tropes of sci-fi, half-fanboy and half-critic, enjoying getting tangled in increasingly abstruse concepts as the show wears on: how memory constructs identity, the fallacies of free will, the nonlinearity of time. The constant throughout these peregrinations is a humanity that the show’s first two seasons seemed to scoff at. For all their talk, Æon and Trevor are deeply empathetic, and, by the time the show’s already-bigger brain goes cosmic in “End Sinister,” they are as fallible as ever. The show ends with them sealed in a hibernation capsule, less so they can be the progenitors of some future civilization, more because they have been humbled by their inability to fulfill or thwart technocracy’s grand mission of transcendence. They have failed and may continue to fail, but they still have each other, their game.
It’s a fitting way to end the show, finally guileless after so much subterfuge, but in the years since Æon and Trevor sealed the capsule, this and many of the show’s other messages seem to have been lost. Reading through Chung’s interviews and forum posts, a sad irony emerges. In a 1993 interview for SOUND Magazine (shared to alt.tv.liquid-tv), Chung is a little bemused by well-meaning questions about whether Æon is a “robot, cyborg, clone?” because she dies at the end of each vignette, but over time his patience erodes. In a 2006 interview for the Monican Spies Livejournal, he punctuates long, thoughtful treatments of his creative intent with exasperated appeals that swing between pandering – “Once and for all – Aeon is NOT out to kill Trevor. (Where do people get this idea?)” – and bluntly disappointed – “Trevor and Aeon were not married in a previous life. That is the least interesting explanation I can imagine for their attraction to one another.” In appropriating the tropes of a genre loved for its logos, Æon Flux has amassed a “[g]eek culture” viewership that knee-jerks to literalism before it might pick up on the “psychological and formal complexity” the show aspires to, provoking Chung to play the ugly role of the misunderstood auteur.
Of all the earnest misreads, the most embarrassing has to be the live-action Æon Flux movie that came out in 2005. Written by “very big fans” of the show and “its weirdness,” Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and envisioned as Paramount’s Blade Runner by then-executive Sherry Lansing, the movie attracted an up-and-coming director, Karyn Kusama, and a recently crowned star, Charlize Theron, seemingly teeing it up for success, but the movie turned out to be a failure along every possible measure: grossing back just $52 million of its $62 million budget, scoring a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, and uninspiring a Riff Trax treatment that exhausts itself after the first half-hour. Of all the reviews, Michael Atkinson’s paragraph for The Village Voice does the best job of mopping up the mess: “a cretinous post-Matrix franchise-wannabe, complete with torturous exposition, motivational speeches, and unnecessary cartwheel calisthenics frenzy-edited so as to insure that we see nothing actually happen.”
The blame fell on a revolving door in Paramount management and a hack-job final cut that was outside Kusama’s control, but this narrative dismisses more foundational issues with the original creative team’s approach, issues Chung voiced when he consulted on the movie’s shooting script. He doesn’t mince his words:
My reading of the script is that it places Aeon in an ambiguous role, and leads to a conclusion which contradicts the very character which we should seek to reinforce. It’s a betrayal of Æon’s identity as a new type of feminine role model to see her pregnant and ready to settle down with Trevor at the movie’s end. What’s next, a house in the suburbs and living happily ever after? Please. I’m sorry, but I doubt that any of the loyal fans of Æon Flux could find this ending acceptable. I certainly do not. This is as sure a way to kill the character as putting a bullet in her head.
Though Kusama et al. dropped the pregnancy angle, and they too were disgusted with the way the movie turned out, in the end it was as if “[t]hey not only disregarded [Chung’s] advice, it seems they deliberately did the opposite.” Voiceovers, monologues, and flashbacks spoon-feed exposition. Æon has not one but two motivating backstories, both as sentimental as they are forced. Her idealistic younger sister is gunned down by a corrupt government, ensuring this time, it’s personal, but when she tries to extract vengeance by assassinating Trevor, she’s overcome by a sudden resurgence of memories showing her and Trevor as a happily married couple in some hazy past life – the exact trap Chung has been trying to talk fans away from – which becomes the image of freedom she and the righteous Monicans will fight for. And fight they do – sniping, slashing, and spinkicking droves of anonymous Breen foot soldiers, this overly facile (if poorly performed) violence justified by the redemption it affords. Chung again: “And, in a way, it has come full circle: Now there’s a Hollywood heroic action movie based on something that was intended to mock it.” And it looks like the cycle will continue – MTV is currently working on a reboot teased as a “live-action series set in a future dystopian state and revolv[ing] around a young assassin who teams with a group of biohacking rebels to save humanity as she becomes the hero known as Æon Flux” that Chung didn’t learn about until it was announced late last year.
Though Chung paints himself into a corner when he argues with fanboys, it’s hard not to wince alongside him as his work is scrapped and repurposed to build something completely antithetical. At the movie’s premiere, “seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theatre made [him] feel helpless, humiliated and sad.” You’d think that after such indignity, he’d shut the door on his fans, but Chung maintains a perverse dedication to granting readers their role in meaning-making:
A good film is one that requires the viewer to create, through an orchestration of impressions, the meaning of its events. It is, in the end, our ability to create meaning out of the raw experience of life that makes us human. It is the exercise of our faculty to discover meaning which is the purpose of art. The didactic imparting of moral or political messages is emphatically not the purpose of art – that is what we call propaganda.
Though Chung has a tendency to want to corral his fans – and one of the defining characteristics of his animation is its thin lines and their sharp polygonality, its control – Chung knows that were he to deny his readers their authorship, he’d also be denying something of himself and his work. Fitting that one of Trevor’s many monologues expounds on the importance of dialogue:
Though the world and events do exist independent of mind they obtain of no meaning in themselves. None that the mind isn’t guilty of imposing on them. I bid my people follow and like all good equations they follow. For full endowment of purpose they do submit. In turn, they resign me to a role inhuman, impossible, and unaccountable.
Chung is aware that he is just one half of a dual, one of the show’s many – Trevor & Æon, authority & anarchy, logos & eros, prose & poem, the serious joke – and that his precise intentions are nothing without the polyphony of interpretation (and vice versa). In fact, maybe this irreconcilable tension between opposites is the source of some pleasure, the furtive smile elicited by your nemesis evading capture yet again, knowing this means there is more of the game to be played. Chung’s word for this is “human,” and, of course, it’s one the show celebrates and compromises in every episode.
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All images are screenshots from the show, available on MTV’s website.