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Pop CultureNovember 27, 2014

Sci Fi Week – Throwback Thursday: The Surreal World of Aeon Flux


This Throwback Thursday, Aaron Yap appreciates the long-tongued leather-clad genius of sci fi series Aeon Flux.//

A funny thing happened when I began revisiting Peter Chung’s cult animated sci-fi series Aeon Flux for this column. Seeing it for the first time since the mid-‘90s when it was on MTV’s Liquid Television – a memorably messed-up anthology show I had to dutifully timer-record because it aired past bedtime – I couldn’t make any sense of its broadcast chronology. The first episode I popped in, unexpectedly, had dialogue, though I clearly remembered there was a time when the show was completely dialogue-free.

The disconnect between my hazy memory and what I was watching left me slightly disoriented, but after a much-needed consultation with Wiki, I was able to unravel its knotty, unusual broadcast history. Its first appearance in 1991 on Liquid TV was broken up into six serialised 2-minute chapters, followed by a second season of five standalone episodes in ‘92 which ran a little longer around at around 4-5 minute each. Then finally, in ‘95, a third season of ten episodes that ran even longer at 20 minutes each – all with newly introduced dialogue. Mystery solved: That initial episode I revisited was the first of the third season.

From this complicated broadcast history – the result of business and artistic decisions colliding – it’s apparent that Aeon Flux never played by the rules.

The show, ostensibly about the on-going battle between the titular agent and her messianic nemesis/on-and-off lover Trevor Goodchild, could be boiled down to the striking, indelible image that ends its opening title credits: Aeon’s eyelashes ensnaring a fly. It’s an image representative of the show’s many genre-bending qualities: the trippy surrealism, layered ambiguity, twisted comedy, perverse sexuality, and of course, Aeon’s alluring charms as an autonomous assassin.

Make no mistake, this was one warped, weird-as-hell show. While Dadaist avant-absurdities can be found on Adult Swim and whatnot with regularity today, Aeon Flux had few peers in the English-speaking television world of the ‘90s. Sure, the show was cloaked in conventions and influences: spot the traces of George Orwell, Luc Besson, John Woo, René Laloux, Mobius, Spy vs Spy and Road Runner. But the genius of creator Peter Chung – who trades in the bright cuddliness of his previous work on Rugrats for severe, angular Egon Schiele-esque forms here – was in deconstructing those kicky action/spy-genre tropes and reconfiguring them into a show that was adventurous and exploratory – even philosophically minded – rather than plot-based.

Chung loves his mid-action openings. It’s normal for the show to open with Aeon part way through a mission to assassinate a target, or Trevor nearing completion of a nefarious experiment. A whole bunch of stuff has already happened leading up to the opening scene – the onus is on the viewer to catch up and interpret the context. In essence, the consistent flouting of traditional narrative freed Chung up to do whatever he wanted, allowing the “plots” to remain unpredictable and inventive. The first two seasons were particularly inspired and refreshing in its the lack of dialogue and continuity, relying on visual storytelling, its playful, mischievous score and the clever use of sound design to seize our attention. Not everything made sense, but I was transfixed.

The second season did something exceptional: it killed Aeon off at the end of every episode. The pleasure was waiting to see how it would occur. In a way, this served as a continuation of the pilot’s fateful finale, a kind-of running gag that revealed Aeon, despite all her seeming acrobatic and sharp-shooting skills, to be somewhat of an incompetent and unlucky klutz. Although it had no shortage of brilliant highlights – Aeon and Trevor lip-locking out the window of a speeding train and airship in “Gravity”; the pass-the-baton character deaths in “War” – the key episode to watch is “Tide”, truly the show’s masterpiece. A dizzying miniaturist symphony of kinetic pacing and rhythm, this Aeon mission brought together multiple lines of action and a sense of inevitability and doom with tight, delightfully mathematical precision.

The arrival of dialogue for Season 3 was a mixed blessing. Though I missed the mystery and cinematic purism of those earliest episodes, exposition was still kept to a minimum, and in some cases, the plots became even more incomprehensible (see the unadulterated delirium of “Chronophasia”). It gave the show avenues to examine and expand its dystopian future world with a bit more detail, and significantly, humanise Aeon and Trevor. Displaying a more pronounced sense of humour, the season was able to have fun with the deadpan snarkiness of their relationship, which often involved being unable to resist each other in a heated moment of conflict.

It’s hard to downplay the sexual, kinkier aspects of Aeon Flux. Even if you forget everything else about the show, you’ll remember how Aeon is dressed: a skimpy fetish-like leather outfit that’s probably hugely impractical for her line of work. Well that, and there’s a shitload of tongue hockeying. The pilot ends with Aeon moaning in ecstasy as she’s getting her foot licked by a long-tongued being; elsewhere you’ll see tongues diving into ears, and at its most Cronenbergian-disgusting, a spinal orifice as in “Thanatophobia” (oh Trevor).

An unfortunate Charlize Theron film version surfaced in 2005, maligned by pretty much everyone (Chung called it “a travesty”) and slightly tarnishing the show’s legacy. But if that’s all the Aeon Flux you’re familiar with, give the original series a chance – you’ll be in for some of the most innovative, bizarre, mind-bending sci-fi animation that’s ever been on TV.

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