Aeon Flux (2005)

I was always struck by the visually arresting artistic style of the Æon Flux animated series when I came across it when channel surfing during the 90’s, and I would occasionally stop and watch it for a while, although I could never make heads nor tails of the storyline. So I recently decided to give the 2005 film a go, especially given that it stars Charlize Theron. I watched it basically because I wanted to know what the hell was happening with the very strange animated series.

aeon fluxYou can read the Wikipedia on the movie’s plot here. It is a profoundly dystopian setting taking place 400 years in the future. Humankind has undergone an apocalyptic event of a pathogenic virus that almost eradicated the human species. The survivors live in a walled city in highly regimented society that is controlled by scientists. Æon is a highly skilled rebel agent of the resistance, known as the Monicans.

The picture has the same mixture of “flat affect” and unstated angst that the odd television series did… but that does not translate as well at all to a live action film. The film also fails to capture the surrealism of the animated series. Although the architecture that was selected for the shoot is actually not bad for real life. The same film made today would now probably be filmed almost entirely via green screen with the surrounding physical world CGI created.

However, despite the fact that the film falls short in many ways, I was still glad I that watched if for no other reason than to once and for all finally understand what was going on in the animated series. The picture did hold my interest for that reason. The actors all do a pretty good job in this film, even if the overall film experience leaves a lot to be desired. Charlize Theron is always good and here she does a respectable job at realizing what is likely a surprisingly difficult character to portray. In any event, ultimately I did care what happened to the characters. The story succeeded to the extent that I wanted to see how it all turned out. This may well have only been the case had it not been for my curiosity about the animated TV series, though.

I will spoil a bit here about a key plot element that is revealed at the film’s end:

The pathogen that destroyed most of humanity left people infertile. The survivors are being cloned, although they don’t even realize it. Because the people of this society are clones, they have deja vu-like memories and troubling dreams related to ‘past life’ experiences. The realization is made at film’s end by Æon that human life should not strive for immortality though cloning, but rather remain finite in order to be experienced as truly meaningful.

Another epiphany at the very end is that the society can finally see it’s way through the delusions imposed by the power elite in the name of protecting it. A way is made clear to free itself from its ruthless mechanization and to reconnect with Nature again. It is discovered that Nature was beginning to find its own way for the clones to become fertile again, despite humankind’s miraculous scientific endeavors and inventions. The world outside of the city is discovered to in fact be a lush, burgeoning wilderness, rather than the desolate wasteland everyone had been told it was. In a nutshell: it can now become apparent to the city’s inhabitants that they are living sterile and mechanized lives, built on lies, driven by an illusion of power and control held by the society’s ruling authority structure.

This did get me thinking a bit about the notion that we ultimately decide what is meaningful about our lives. So much of that is externally (socially-culturally) imposed. It is however up to each of us to identify what we value the most. We choose what is most important to us. So if this not-so-great film got me thinking about  that, it’s fair to say that it succeeded for me, individually. I’ve said before that in my humble opinion the only fair way to judge a film is ultimately how well it connects with the viewer personally for his or her own reasons.

Anyway, the ending was actually somewhat satisfying to me in terms of those big themes. In sum, the film was worth the trouble to see through to the end, I felt.

This is an aside but, interestingly, on the very same evening that I watched this movie I happened to view also an episode of the series Hacking the Universe, in which the host, Brian Cox, closed by observing that species extinction is a virtual certainty–it is essentially the natural order. The niche left by an extinct species is filled by a new one that comes along to fill the gap (e.g., we’re here because the dinosaurs became extinct). Brian noted that however due to human intelligence, we seem to have the ability to possibly prevent our own extinction.

That resonated for me with the central plot themes of Æon Flux. It was a coincidence, of course, but a fun and interesting one.

Aeon Flux (2005)

Mad Max: Fury Road

My wife was again up for another action film so we went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe in part because I pitched to her that it was sitting at an incredible 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomato-meter, with over 200 reviews (including from magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker ).

My wife cautioned that I might be disappointed with that level of hype, and I agreed. I tried to drop my expectations a notch, although admittedly they were still pretty darn high.

A plot summary may be read here at IMDb.

Sure enough, Mad Max: Fury Road  is topnotch for what it is: a post-apocalyptic thrill ride and a visual extravaganza. The direction is just about as good as one could hope for this type of film–George Miller outdid himself. And it easily passed my most basic litmus test of whether I cared what happened to the protagonists. The acting performances are all great.

I was happy for Thomas Hardy that he turned in a rock solid performance that no one will make fun of (after his The Dark Knight Rises ‘ Bane–although I’m in the minority of fans that loved his portrayal of the character–and his Dr. Evil-like Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis). 

But Charlize Theron’s character Imperator Furiosa is as much the star of this film as Max is. It is as much her story as it is Max’s.

Zoe Kravitz gives a standout performance as one of the spunkier “breeder” women that Furiosa and Max are protecting. And Melissa Jaffer is memorable as the Keeper of the Seeds. Nicholas Hoult it fine as Nux, although I’m not sure that the film really needed the Nux character.

This movie is all about maintaining tension visually, and it succeeds at that brilliantly–and lavishly. It is strung extremely taut throughout; and the film manages to actually increase the tension in the final act, which is pretty amazing in hindsight. Tension-wise, this movie like watching a horse race in which the lead changes hands several times, and it ends in a near photo-finish.

Also with respect to the visual spectacle, the film is replete with the freakishly grotesque characters that we’re used to from the earlier Mad Max films; although I’m can’t quite say that we get any to top Lord Humungus, Wez, the Gyro Captain, and the Feral Kid from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In this film Imortann Joe is certainly very imposing, though. Rictus Erectus, on the other hand, basically seems to be interchangeable with Wez (although Wez was more colorful).

I guess there was a slight letdown for me in that for very dark, oppressive, bleak dystopian fictional settings (I’m not particularly a fan of them), I need a story or characters that truly surprise me to make it a five star experience. There has to be something innovative about that for me to like the film tremendously. I did not really get that here. The feminist theme that enslaved women (although it seems everyone in Imortann Joe’s enclave is his slave) were taking charge to free themselves was nice to see, but there was nothing particularly inspired about it. Then again, that was really just an added benefit for a film like this–which is not so much about depth of story, but rather blowing us away with the visual experience.

Anyway, it was a good time and the film was enjoyable. My wife and I both enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. I doubt it’s a film that I’ll watch again. But it was pretty neat to see on the big screen in 3D. A fun night out.

Addednum: Spoiler to follow:

My wife had an interesting observation to make: Furiosa and her party end up right where they started–although in order for change to occur Furiosa clearly needed to do what she did. My wife was not prepared to assign a possible meaning to this, such as may be intended by the director. But she did note the irony.

Furiosa cannot quite be said to be seeking a paradise, but the longed for “Green Place” virtually is that in contrast with the psychotically nightmarish hell-on-earth Imortann Joe has created. There was also the theme of warriors’ belief in Valhalla. So we see in this film an overpowering motivation to seek a Utopian vision: either in the afterlife (on the part of the bad guys) or on earth (sought by this film’s heroes). Max of course would never put stock in any either vision. As he says in the opening narration, he has become the embodiment of the survival instinct, pure and simple. (Although that said, it is interesting to note that Max clearly favors prosocial order and individual freedom.)

A movie like this does not really need a “deeper message” (and it already has a laudable feminist twist). But perhaps if there is one to be drawn from it, perhaps it is that we must never give up in striving to do what is right to make the world a saner, more egalitarian, prosocially nurturing, free, and peaceful place, even when the odds seem insurmountable. We will thereby meaningfully change the world we actually inhabit, rather than transform it into something altogether different. The trick is to identify what you actually can do something about, envision what you wish to do with it, and put a plan into action. It does seem that the impulse to imagine a grand vision of ‘an ideal world that could be’ ironically drives us forward, though. (Unless you’re like Max. Which is, um, not desirable! Better that we be Furiosa!)

Mad Max: Fury Road

Prometheus

I watched Prometheus  this evening (thanks to the $7.88 blu-ray bin at Walmart).

A brief synopsis of the film: At the tail end of our current century an exploratory space mission is bankrolled by a powerful corporate tycoon to the moon of a Saturn-like exo-planet in another solar system. There is compelling evidence that this moon is the home of the earth’s extra-terrestrial “gods” of ages past (i.e., a la Erich Von Daniken’s ancient alien astronaut theory). The young scientist couple that made the discovery is on the mission, and there is an android aboard the ship equipped with powerful AI who was created by the trillionaire tycoon patron. The ship they’re making the voyage with is called the Prometheus. Upon arrival the researchers immediately stumble onto ruins of a site that is clearly engineered by intelligent beings, and they go exploring.

This is the sort of film that truly perplexes me. It has so many strong ingredients:

  • a talented, visionary, and proven (if uneven) director (Ridley Scott)
  • a story that ties in with the Alien  series (the first two films were great, anyway)
  • some truly gorgeous CGI and set design
  • a great cast (Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron)

So what could go wrong? Sadly, the film bears scant resemblance to what scientists would actually do in the situation that the film places them in. I’m not a scientist, mind you. But I feel that I can say that with total confidence.The film simply uses the framework of a scientific mission as a kind of prop to… I think … try to craft an allegory about… what it means to be human?… That is my best guess, anyway. Because the picture regularly voices a number of basic existential themes. But if so, it was rather difficult to decipherable what the film’s deeper message is.

Or maybe I’m over-thinking it (as I am wont to do). Maybe it’s just another haunted house movie in space, following in the footsteps of its brilliant predecessor Alien ? If so, the film falls well short on that count as well. In that department Alien did what this film did ten times better.

The central question that arises in my mind with this film is: why  would the director knowingly make a science fiction film that he surely must be aware is likely to alienate the majority of science fiction fans due to its near total disregard for any sort of scientific realism (i.e., methods used by the protagonists)? As science fiction Prometheus  is just bad. Exploration of an extraterrestrial archeological site would be painstakingly and slowly conducted with great patience. There would be tremendous care given to trying to avoid contamination in either direction (from humans to this planet’s ecosystem, and vice versa). And space is also a supremely hostile environment. As noted, scientists proceed with caution in general; and the greater the physical dangers, especially, the more precautions they would take. This group is about as careful as a bull in a china shop. That is to me a big immersion buster. There goes my willing suspension of disbelief.

Ironically, in light of the film’s subject matter (I won’t spoil here) the crew truly deserves a Darwin award. It is actually hard to have any sympathy for them. (Really, only one character, Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, is fully likeable. Although I was rooting for Fassbender’s android character David as well, despite his flaws. And the ship’s captain also deserves honorable mention, though I won’t spoil as to why). If director Ridley Scott’s allegory is basically that humankind deserves to go extinct because of our stupidity, then perhaps the film redeems itself by couching it in self-parody. I say this half in jest: because I think it is actually conceivable that it is the film’s message. If by some stretch it is the point that Scott is trying to make, then it’s really not a very satisfying cinematic experience for the film-goer. And it would amount mainly to a form of self-indulgence on Scott’s part as a director.

Thinking more on this, it could be that Scott’s commentary on humanity is that our insatiable curiosity is both our downfall and saving grace (our innate curiosity does receive a more positive slant at the film’s end). That is a worthwhile observation to make. It is just very awkwardly executed by this film.

What makes this film watchable despite these criticisms is the incredible CGI, which was to me truly mesmerizing. It is a feast for the eyes. And the performances by Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender in particular also make the film worth the trouble to sit through.

It’s just a shame that Prometheus could have been a very good film–but instead an insultingly dumbed down script ruined the experience for those who love science and space exploration.

Prometheus