The perfect society. That’s the myth at the heart of the new Paramount Pictures movie, Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron in the title role. Set four centuries after a doomsday scenario has wiped out all but 5 million people on the planet, the only survivors live in the last human city of Bregna, sealed off from the outside world.
The movie is based on the animated series of the same name created by Peter Chung for MTV in the 1990s. The live action version, directed by Karyn Kusama, is a visually stunning piece with exhilarating action sequences, but unlike many action films today the story is driven by an intellectually stimulating and imaginative plot. Elements of the series’ dark sensuality remain, but they are sharply curtailed when compared to the original.
The scientist named Goodchild who discovered the cure to the industrial virus founded Bregna, instituting a totalitarian regime to keep order and protect civilians from the encroaching threats of the untamed wilderness and further outbreaks of disease. Thus, the foundational conflict in the movie is between rebels against the dictatorial state, known as the Monicans, and the familial Goodchild government, now headed by Chairman Trevor Goodchild.
The Goodchild regime has all the earmarks of a modern-day tyranny, with images of the Chairman reproduced throughout the city, a devastatingly effective secret police that ruthlessly eliminates any opposition to the government, and pervasive information gathering technology to keep track of all of the inhabitants’ activities. The parallels between Bregna and contemporary despotic states like North Korea are unmistakable.
Aeon Flux, who is the premier assassin among the rebel Monicans, can in some way be seen as an embodiment of the same commitment to freedom and liberty at work in the founding of the United States. The Declaration of Independence refers to the rights and duties of people who live under tyranny: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
This, in a nutshell, is the mission of Aeon Flux, who transcends her Monican associates, who simply want to “throw off” the Goodchild government but seem quite capable of replacing his totalitarian regime with one of their own. They are truly rebels. Aeon, by contrast, hopes for a positive future full of the hope of freedom and human flourishing, and thus becomes a revolutionary.
The complex plot of the movie intellectually challenging, as bioethical questions regarding medicine, reproduction, and cloning are raised and considered not simply as plot devices, but as extended reflections on the nature of human beings who live in social relation. Where the movie is at its most insightful is in its realization that absolute political power, even where it is instituted with good and laudable intentions, has the inevitable tendency to bring out the depravity of those in power. Lord Acton’s truism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was never more applicable than here.
Where the film falters, however, is in its portrayal of the underlying foundations of a just political arrangement. The framers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind the explicit model of human rights derived from God, that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” At best, Aeon Flux evidences a sort of implicit humanist sentimentality.
To be sure, there is no scientific naturalism in the film’s underlying message, as it emphasizes the power and love of the human soul. But Aeon’s ultimate wish is simply that the people of Bregna will be able to die with a hope in the future fulfillment of self-realized human potential.
This falls far short of the fullness of hope that comes with the recognition of God and an afterlife. Aeon ultimately recognizes half of the biblical formula, that “man is destined to die once,” but does not go further to realize that hope in the face of judgment in death consists in that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:27-28 NIV) This is the only basis for true hope in this world, and the perfect society will necessarily remain a myth until this foundation is realized.
Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.