In the early 1990s, America seemed to have found a way out of at least one cultural nadir. The 1980s were, to put it mildly, a little gruesome for both film and animation, serving up not only the apogee of the ‘blockbuster’ mentality in cinema, but also cheap, mass-produced kids’ shows with dedicated networks to run them on demand. After a decade of mismanaging this new low, however, it looked as if the logical solution was not to tap high art, but to explore some deeper possibilities from the bottom, albeit with a touch of high art’s polish. Well, given the direction things ultimately went, this was not to be, yet not without some glimmers of what could have been. Nickelodeon, for example, produced several now-classic shows such as Hey Arnold! and The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, Cartoon Network launched Courage The Cowardly Dog, FOX had The Simpsons, and MTV – in their final paroxysm before the TRL coma – had Liquid Television. The last of these was an animation showcase that, while in many respects a failure, was nonetheless a noble failure, briefly cementing MTV’s willingness to eschew norms for the sake of pushing boundaries. One of the program’s more interesting features was Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux, a philosophical anime of disconnected shorts that metamorphosed into ten full-length episodes later on. Although mostly forgotten today, the show is – like Neon Genesis Evangelion after it – a good example of the anti-80s backlash, as well as the ways in which the 1990s were unable to cope with their own inheritance.
To begin, Aeon Flux’s premise is less complicated than typically suggested, since a single viewing is enough to glean the relevant details. Aeon (Denise Poirier) is an agent and possible terrorist from the state of Monica, which is seemingly at war with neighboring Bregna and its new leader, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). There may be some wider world, but it does not meaningfully expand beyond these two nations, since it is Trevor’s unilateral behavior which yields the future for the whole cosmos. The lead characters are, inexplicably, in both sexual and psychological conflict, attempting to entrap one another without an obvious plan of action and with intentions that shift from episode to episode. Sex, too, is less of a bonding exercise for the habitans of Aeon Flux than it is a ritual or game, which adds little to the narrative except to suggest that this is not ‘our’ world – and perhaps that human beings have evolved past recognition – in the most flagrant way possible. More importantly, however, the true nature of the show’s central conflict is unclear. Yes, Monica is often described as a ‘free’ anarchist society compared to ‘repressive’ Bregna, but we see almost nothing of Monica: merely that Aeon, herself, is not evil, seems to believe in her mission, and that her mission – whatever it is – is both free-form and ambiguous. This itself proves nothing, plot-wise, but it does provide a logical setting where chance and leaps of intuition can play a role in the show’s (admittedly limited) success.
Fortunately, Aeon Flux sheds much of its dead weight early on, kicking things off with a twelve-minute pilot that is easily the weakest part of the series. That’s because while it dutifully sets up the show’s internal logic, and exposes the viewer to some key themes, this is really its sole function. It’s thin on narrative and characterization, and while it does show its protagonist in failure – complete with her death and resurrection – this is now eleven minutes into a rote little tale. “Gravity” and “Mirror” are better merely on account of being shorter, while “Tide” takes this brevity to its logical conclusion, replaying a few similar events over and over again to create the illusion of parallel worlds. The ending where the ‘key’ finally makes it into its socket is thus both satisfying and technically superb, echoing both past and future episodes while suggesting new avenues to probe. For example, Trevor has already appeared as a general, an agent, and a slave, and whereas Aeon will continue to die in novel ways, she is a mere afterthought in the final short, “War”, which depicts a series of ‘un-killable’ heroes who are in fact killed one after the other. Nor is this mere parody, but satire, as it highlights the irreality and dullness of so many genre conventions within anime while suggesting better something in its place. This does not mean, of course, that Aeon Flux is in fact able to be this subluxation, yet it does offer some cues to how it can all be handled in the future.
But while the shorts sketch both world and introcosm, their gaps are partly filled over the next ten episodes. In “Utopia or Deuteranopia?”, Trevor’s strange desires are made clear as he takes power in the state of Bregna by secretly deposing the well-loved but mentally incapacitated Clavius. There’s an element of benign dictatorship to all this, but also Trevor’s lust for Aeon, which seems to be as much of an impetus as his more seemingly noble goals. Bregna, then, ticks every box under ‘dystopia’, for while we as viewers can see all the drawbacks of war and repression, little of it seems to touch day-to-day life, where even death appears temporary. This casts doubt on Monica’s true goals, and even the episode’s title likely does not refer to Bregna, but Monica. In short, although we know Bregna can’t be a utopia, Monica might very well symbolize deuteranopia: that is, a mild form of color blindness, where the Monicans might see just enough to realize Bregna’s faults, but not their own. Thus, we might not be dealing not with an ideal society fighting against a highly flawed one (as fans of the show commonly argue), but a dystopia clashing with its own distortion.
Yet the show’s best episode, by far, is “Thanataphobia”, as it is the only one to look beyond its own little universe. It starts with the revelation of a shared border between Monica and Bregna and the Breens’ desire to cross over. One of these border-crossers, Sybil (Grace Whitefeather), fails at her first attempt, at which point she is crippled by a gun turret. Yet instead of being executed, Bregna’s response is more technocratic: it performs surgery on the refugees, restoring them to normal function in exchange for the price of the operation. In Sybil’s case, this is an artificial vertebra, which only deepens her wish to get to Monica, as she spends her time training for yet another crossing. Ostensibly, this is all about Bregna’s shortcomings and the desire for a better life, but halfway through the tale, it’s clear that Sybil’s fixation has little to do with either politics or livelihood. Yes, these may be her answers if she is ever pressed about her intentions, but the deeper reason seems to be her original failure, and the way that failure begets an existential need which takes control of her life. This is underscored by the ending, wherein Sybil fails yet again and suffers an even harsher punishment as her legs are amputated. Seeing her psychological anguish, Trevor (who in fact wants to de-militarize the border for philosophical reasons) looks on and muses: “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stranger.” Note how in just one line of dialogue, Chung takes a cliché, inverts it, and uses it as an overarching comment on both human will and unreasonableness, for what better way to describe needless self-destruction than in terms of inscrutability and desideratum?
Unfortunately, except for the positives I’ve already described, the rest of Aeon Flux tends to blur into itself. Just a few days after the show’s second viewing, I have now forgotten much of the filler in between its more individuated highs: a classic sign of idea over execution, since the former without the latter functions more as ego than that ego’s deeper expression. To begin, Aeon Flux is an animation, but lacks any memorable visuals. Pretty much everything is drawn in a prosaic way, and while this in and of itself may not be an issue, there is nothing to play off of, no expressive framing, and little to differentiate it from typical kids’ shlock. Further, many of the show’s individual episodes tend to either devolve to rote action (“Ether Drift Theory”, “End Sinister”) a mere child’s conception of what a ‘deep’ idea might look like (“Isthmus Crypticus”, “The Demiurge”), or pale borrowings from far greater, earlier works of art, such as Aeon’s riff on A Clockwork Orange in “The Purge”. Another, “Reraizure”, tangles up the best and worst of the genre, what with an excellent, well-written, and highly satisfying ending serving as a capstone to a rather silly subplot whose entire self-justification must leech off of its final moments. In fact, so much of anime, as a rule, tends to begin and end quite well, but must nonetheless deal with a drawn-out and anomic middle its creators always seem to forget about.
There is, in short, a linearity of thinking that no amount of novelty can undo, which – to be fair – is not a problem unique to Peter Chung. Yet if you’re wondering ‘what’ Aeon Flux is about, in a moment-to-moment sense, the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. This would, of course, be the same answer I’d give to any similar question of a great artwork, but here’s the difference. In the latter, the ‘what’ is immaterial, as it’s really the build-up that counts. Here, however, it is all about the end-goal, but with neither a real goal in sight nor much understanding of how to get there – if, in fact, one can even get there – what is left? A few threads, some indirections, and a sum that, for all of its ambition, can’t quite slough off the very thing it aims to.