It would border on ironically unoriginal to point out that MTV today is a sad, high noon shadow of its former self, but there it is. Watching Aeon Flux makes me miss the MTV of decades past, when the sun was just beginning to rise on network actively trying to do something really interesting. It makes me miss risk-taking television, which Aeon Flux most certainly was. Maybe I’m being overly nostalgic, but it is hard to imagine current MTV executives, or most other networks for that matter, backing an avant-garde animated show featuring a thong-wearing dominatrix assassin and reeking of Gnosticism. But times change I guess.
Aeon Flux originally aired as shorts on Liquid Television, MTV’s groundbreaking and eclectic animation show that showcased the work of independent animators and underground cartoonists. In a frenzied flash of varied styles in each episodes 15 or so shorts, Liquid Television was almost as free flowing and formless as the name suggests. Between commissioning animated shorts for the show and surfacing older content from underground cartoonists, Liquid Television was a guaranteed 30 minutes of the unexpected. Ranging from silly and absurd to the surreal, trippy, and risqué, the show was designed to be something unlike anything else before it. The intention of creating something challenging and thought provoking is what made Liquid Television so great and what makes it so sorely missed today. When the show aired in 1991, MTV’s vice president of creative and on-air promotions Abby Terkuhle said, "I think MTV has really defined and created a new language--a less linear television language, with shorter forms that don't follow the conventional narrative thread. I think people have become more sophisticated because of it." Imagine, mainstream television programming demanding sophistication from its viewers!
Aeon Flux hits the definition of a densely packed, non-traditional and sophisticated narrative dead on. In the original shorts in particular (the shorts were later adopted into a stand-alone series on MTV), clear context was thrown out of the picture quicker than the idea of a fully clothed Aeon. There’s no dialogue, only grunts, sighs, dying breaths, and a fair share of licking sounds. There is intelligible dialogue in the extended series episodes, where we learn that Aeon Flux is a secret agent in a future dystopian world whose missions take her to the repressive, technocratic state of Bregna, a nation led by her nemesis/lover Trevor Goodchild. Yet even with the addition of dialogue, words reveal very little. For creator Peter Chung, Aeon Flux was an opportunity to experiment in almost strictly visual storytelling, to see how much he could reveal without using dialogue to explain everything. Image tells all, or at least all that you need to know.
The result is an extremely open-ended series of gruesome and kinky events in spectacularly stylized animation. But because it’s Aeon Flux and it’s brilliant, there’s more to it than that. On the ambiguity, Peter Chung explained in an interview that there “is the deliberate aversion to provide backstory because backstory is a trap. Explain nothing. What matters is not the names of families, how many years in the future or past. What matters is the structure, the relationship of events, the thread which allows us to accept an unlikely outcome through the carefully delineated (and orchestrated) sequence of causal progression driven by character.”
And the character of the busty and lusty Aeon Flux is equally complicated. Chung’s refusal to give us backstory leaves an action narrative without clearly sorted heroes and villains. Aeon is unpredictable. Her actions range from murderous to altruistic to solely satisfying her sexual desires. In differentiating Aeon from the archetypal rebel hero, Chung said, “She isn't striving to be free. She IS free. When rebellions win, they are likely to replace one form of control with another. Aeon doesn't take orders from anyone. Everything she does is self-motivated. That is why each episode must create a new motive for her. There is no ideological template to follow.”
It should be clear by now that Chung doesn’t readily hand out clues. He’s toying with us. Aeon Flux is a red-hot killing machine up against an autocratic state; so naturally, we want to back her all the way. But other than the fact that she’s a total badass, there’s no obvious reason to. Though Aeon and Trevor are equal opposing forces, they’re also intensely linked sexually. There’s a dependence between them, a mutual need to balance her recklessness with his control, but neither one can be considered a full hero or full villain. Sure, the “heroic” action is there, but as far as we can tell, the logic is not. Chung said, “The original impetus behind the Aeon Flux "Pilot" was a critique of the manipulation of sympathy in Hollywood movies.” He explains, “Which was basically having the main character doing all the standard heroic things, but doing so in what I would call a 'moral vacuum' in which you don't really know why she's doing the things she's doing but you're kind of caught up in the action.”
Even if Aeon can stack up a ridiculous body count, in the end the violence is always entirely futile. He’s parodying the ever-present action movie shtick of the one hero vs. all evil and though the odds are 1:everyone else, somehow the hero comes out on top. In Aeon Flux, bodies may be stacked high and the floor may be ankle-deep with blood, but Aeon’s preposterous success is always entirely futile. In every short episode she dies a swift and grizzly death. Her actions and their end, though unquestionably awesome, are anything but heroic.
A critique on part of the medium used to do the critiquing, wanton warrior women, a lot a lot of cartoon bloodshed – that’s what risk-taking television is all about! Looking back, with MTV as it stands and the Aeon Flux film adaptation, it’s crazy to read thid 1991 quote about Liquid Television from the creative director and co-executive producer Japhet Asher who said, "While eventually people will feel there's an ongoing attitude in the show. I hope they'll continue to feel discombobulated." This past October, MTV announced that it’s reviving Liquid Television on all of its television and digital platforms. I can’t decide whether it’s encouraging or tragic that the latest animated creation was released after an episode of Jersey Shore. But I’m going to lean on the encouraging end. After all, history has shown us that good things come when talented cartoonists get wider exposure. If Aeon Flux is any indicator, I say welcome the second era.
Aeon Flux on IMDB
Liquid Television webpage
Los Angeles Times 1991 review of Liquid Television by Lauren Lipton
“MTV Revives Liquid Television” by Chris Arrant on Cartoon Brew
Peter Chung interview for Monican Spies, an Aeon Flux online fan community
Peter Chung interview with Scott Thill on Bright Lights Journal
Peter Chung interview with Ed Stastny from SOUND
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.