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Why the Aeon Flux animated series was so groundbreaking
MTV's Liquid Television was an experimental animated variety show that saw the introduction of a whole new style of adult animation to a wider audience than ever before in the early '90s. Cartoons like Beavis and Butt-Head had their mainstream debut here, and the works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri and John Dilworth gained a larger audience. Building off what was being done in the same era through underground animation festivals like Spike & Mike's, Liquid Animation was the rare bizarre concept that fiscally paid off, all while inspiring countless animators for years to come.
Among the cartoons that launched through Liquid Television and went on to enjoy an impactful series of their own is none other than Aeon Flux. Now better known as a 2005 action movie starring Charlize Theron, it's easy to forget what a huge deal Aeon Flux actually was way back in 1991. Though steeped in various science fiction tropes, there hasn't been anything very much like it before or since. Focusing an experimental sci-fi mini-epic around a morally complex female protagonist isn't something we see enough of today, let alone in 1991.
"Aeon Flux" was initially the title of the cartoon and not the character, and it was not initially intended that she would be the focal point of the series. What an alternate Aeon Flux without Aeon would even look like is hard to say, but we're glad that she's an idea that stuck.
The basic premise behind the show is that in the distant future climate catastrophe has led to mass human extinction. The remaining survivors of the human race are now restricted to two sister cities, Monica and Bregna. Aeon is a spy and an assassin from Monica sent to infiltrate Bregna, which we learn is in extreme political turmoil and a false Utopia, outwardly beneficial but secretly totalitarian. Throughout the series, it remains under the control of the fascist Trevor Goodchild, with whom Aeon has an adversarial but sexually charged relationship that is not ever fully explained throughout the series.
Each episode is a unique scenario, not connected to the others except via its central plot and tone. That said, questions of free will and autonomy rise up again and again. In "Isthmus Crypticus," Aeon is asked to kidnap a magnificent psychic human/bird hybrid by a man that is convinced he is in love with the creature. Aeon turns him down, telling him that the creature does not love him and “I'd rather kill her than turn her over to you.” In "Thanatophobia," she tries desperately to prove a woman's lover is unworthy and does not truly love her, then pleads with her not to attempt to flee across the border between the cities, knowing she will die. The woman chooses to go regardless of this warning and she dies, but it causes Aeon true sadness that she does. In "The Purge," Aeon fights against an unrepentant villain who is suddenly given a manmade soul, then fights against being given one herself. The fight to remain free regardless of the cost is the defining backdrop of the show.
The technical elements of the series all help to bring in its utterly unique tone. Creator Peter Chung's animation style is manga-esque, but with a jagged, angular edge that is all his own. The character design is immediately striking and iconic, from Trevor's composed attire as head of state to Aeon's visually compelling, futuristic haircut. The soundtrack by Drew Neumann is nothing short of a masterpiece. Strange, unearthly sci-fi tones mixed in with unexpected changes and occasionally sorrowful passages do nothing but add to the aesthetic of the series. The producer of Liquid Animation himself, Japhet Asher, writes some of the scripts, as do Chung and several others. Dialogue between Aeon and Trevor is nothing short of perfect, and her various doomed missions only emphasize the complicated emotional life of her character.
There are certain elements that can't be contained within descriptions of the story. Trevor is often the closing narrator of the episodes, and he emphasizes thoughtfulness and reason in his appeals for a fascist state. Aeon is his moral opposite, and while he questions whether what he's doing is truly wrong, she's always there to assure him that it absolutely is. They share the knowledge of human weakness and cruelty, but it takes them to different conclusions on every point. Aeon and Trevor enjoy their debates and often appear as lovers, but there is clear knowledge that their idealistic differences will never allow them to truly unite with one another. Trevor's lust for power is stronger than everything else, and Aeon seeks to dethrone him.
The chaotic elements of Aeon's character are compelling, but she has a strong anti-fascist moral leaning that allows the audience to root for her even when she's at her most brutal. Aeon almost always appears as an ally of other women, even when she is necessarily opposed to them. She has short flings with various characters throughout the series and queer relationships are certainly hinted at as well. In the second episode, she is working with a woman whose boyfriend is angry about the time they spend together, implying that she's going to leave him for Aeon, which the woman does not deny as she kicks him out of her apartment. Though her story is tragic, there's little question that she and Aeon are romantically involved by the end of the episode as she wears Aeon's leather jacket as a sort of safety blanket.
Indeed, all stories in Aeon Flux end tragically, but there is a sort of mutated hope underlying the series if you look for it. Aeon may never get through to Trevor, but she'll also never let him win. This is an avant-garde take on science fiction, but it is offered in the buoyant spirit of artistic experimentation. Despite the disconnected nature of the story at hand, this series manages to be surprisingly profound while giving us thought-provoking story arcs and one of the great genre heroes of the '90s.