Grade: F

When a major studio declines to pre-screen a big-budget action movie, not only based on a cult-fave MTV animated series but also starring two Academy Award-winning actresses, for critics prior to opening, it’s not a good sign. Indeed, one might expect a real catastrophe, the cinematic equivalent of a tsunami. “Aeon Flex” does not disappoint. If you tossed the worst features of “Lara Croft,” “Elektra,” “Catwoman,” “Sky Blue” and “The Island” into a blender and set it to working, this flashy but incredibly dull mess is precisely what you might expect to emerge. It’s more of a cartoon than the original cartoon was, but there’s nothing funny about it (perhaps if it had been done as a send-up, like “Modesty Blaise”…no, even that probably wouldn’t have helped).

Set in 2415, the movie is titled after its stern, punkish heroine (Charlize Theron), a resistance fighter with a group called the Monicas assigned, by her statue-like Handler (Frances McDormand), to assassinate Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), chief honcho of the Big Brotherish government of the heavily-fortified city of Bregna, which was founded some four centuries earlier to house the only survivors of a terrible plague that carried off the rest of humanity. Aeon is overjoyed to be entrusted with the mission, because the government has just killed her sister Una (Amelia Warner), although she was a complete innocent. As she works to complete her task, however, she finds that, as the cliche goes, nothing is as it seems. There are deep, dark secrets in Bregna, including a conspiracy that reveals major fault lines within the ruling establishment. Rest assured, however, that Aeon will ultimately learn the truth behind what’s going on within the strange flying contraption that circles around the city like some ominous reminder of past tragedy, as well as the reason why some of the citizens of Bregna are simply disappearing. One doesn’t want to reveal too much even about a plot this hairbrained, but the twists include a pretty predictable revelation about the real character of Chairman Goodchild (who turns out to be, for those of you with an opera background, a sort of Sarastro figure) and an even more obvious one about the identity of the real villain of the piece. On the latter point I’ll just note that Jonny Lee Miller is in the cast. ’Nuff said?

None of this makes much sense, but then in a sci-fi potboiler one doesn’t really expect profundity or even logic. The problem in “Aeon Flux” is that every element of the picture seems to have been treated with contempt except the production design and the special effects. Visually it looks spiffy, though in the glossy, sterile style so common in this sort of futuristic claptrap, and the cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh accentuates the shiny emptiness of it all. But in terms of character, the movie has absolutely nothing to offer. That’s largely because director Karyn Kusama, whose work in “Girfight” had such point and power, seems to have been so overwhelmed by the technical demands of such a massive production that she’s unable to invest it with the slightest hint of humanity. Even the big fight sequences, explosions and shoot-’em-ups–of which there are many–are poorly staged, but it’s the more intimate, dialogue-driven sequences that are truly embarrassing, especially for the cast. Coming off worst are certainly McDormand and Pete Postlethwaite as a wizened figure called The Keeper, both of whom are given almost nothing to do but wear hideously unflattering costumes and act like automatons. But Sophie Okonedo suffers too, as a fellow agent of Aeon’s who–at one point at least–has had her feet genetically turned into a second pair of hands (a bit of surpassing ugliness), while Csokas is asked to do nothing but look conflicted and apologetic (a proper attitude, one might say, in this context) and Miller does his customary snarling shtick. Then there’s Theron, who gets ample opportunity to show off her trim, lithe frame in very revealing outfits (one could suggest that “Aeon Anorexia” might be a more appropriate title) but also demonstrates than she can be as tediously impassive as any other young actress thrust into one of these super-heroine roles. The unholy brew of bad acting, clueless direction, clumsily staged action, strikingly unattractive sets and sub-par effects is made even more insufferable by the endlessly hectoring synthesizer score from Graeme Revell, which sounds as trashy as the picture looks.

One thing that this movie can do is to provide David Letterman with a routine to perform if he’s ever asked to host the Oscars again. Given the names of the characters Theron and Warner play, he can go repeatedly from one to the other in the audience, saying “Aeon, Una” in a pointless mantra. Like the last time around, the bit might not get many laughs, but it would fill up the monologue time, just as “Aeon Flux” fills up ninety minutes, but doesn’t manage to do much of anything else but bore the viewer to tears.