Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the makers of Atomic Blonde have decided, correctly I think, that Charlize Theron is due for a hand-to-hand combat action movie. She's made a few such projects over the years, and I figured, what the hell, it was time to finally catch up with one of the more notoriously bad ones.

It's not clear to me why Æon Flux isn't good. The production design, by Andrew McAlpine, is just sweller than swell, for starters, certainly good enough that it should be able to compensate for a certain lack of inspiration in the screenplay - just ask Blade Runner, Dark City, or Moulin Rouge! - though in fairness, the screenplay (adapted by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi from a short animated series that aired on MTV in the 1990s) is somewhat noticeably worse than "uninspired". And director Karyn Kusama's staging is pretty damn nifty, all things considered.

Nonetheless, it sucks. There can be no doubt at all that at least some of that sucking can be laid squarely at the feet of the Paramount executives who insisted on rebuilding the film to be more mainstream-friendly than Kusama's original cut: it has the unmistakable hollowed-out, jerkily-paced feel that comes when scenes have been ripped out more for reasons of running time than narrative clarity. It's not exactly "confusing", as a result, though it's more muddled and aimless than the story in any way justifies. Still, let us not say "corporate interference!" and call it a day - there's plenty in Æon Flux that just feels off in some way, like the different people involved didn't all speak the same language, or something. It has an inhuman stiffness in a lot of ways, particularly in Charlize Theron's performance as good ol' Æon Flux herself. The 2005 film was released two years after Theron's Oscar win for Monster, and the same season as North Country, for which she nabbed her second Oscar nomination, so we're definitely firmly in "Theron is a respected, established actor" territory, but you'd never know it from the performance she gives her, easily one of her career-worst.

Ms. Flux lives in the year 2415, centuries after the plague that killed 90% of humanity in 2011 (man, I remember how much that sucked), before the survivors were rescued by a scientist named Goodchild, whose descendants now rule the walled city of Bregna, last outpost of humanity, with an iron fist. Flux is a member of the Monicans, a rebel group dedicated to overthrowing Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), and her political mission becomes personal when government assassins mistakenly kill her sister Una (Amelia Warner). From there, things get complicated: Æon Flux is one of those movies with so much plot that has to be clarified that it ends up having exposition where other movies have conflict. It's not necessarily hard to follow, but it assuredly dull to follow, particularly once the inevitable secret of Flux's identity starts to crawl out, and the secrets of Bregna itself. What should be stunning revelations clunk into place with heavy thuds.

It's a pity that the oral history of Bregna should be such a grind, because what we learn about the place from looking at it ought to be the stuff of a really magnificent sci-fi film. The film is a rarity in that it's a strongly production design-driven story set in a dystopian future that doesn't meaningfully evoke Blade Runner. Instead, the world of the film has a kind of chilly futurist neo-classical vibe, like what you might get if killer robots built a version of 18th Century France. It's all stunning to look at, even if its as simple as the green space cut into small gardens by flowing grey lines where Flux and fellow Monican Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo) use elaborate martial arts moves to avoid the sentient razor-sharp grass trying to kill them, or as dramatic as the huge ventilation system with Expressionist lines where Flux attempts to sneak into one government building or another. The whole look of the thing is lifelessly ersatz, huge and pretty and vaguely mechanical, and given what we'll learn to be true of Bregna, this is all exactly as it should be.

Kusama's way of placing her actors into this space has a certainly brittle, formalistic quality that matches the feeling of the set design. The way that the action scenes, in particular, ask the actors and stuntpeople to movie and hold their bodies suggest some thoroughly foreign way of inhabiting not just physical spaces but one's own flesh - Sithandra's introduction, sidling into the movie around a wall like she's a fluid substance, is an especially striking example, but examples abound. The action itself is fairly sedate and ordinary, but the rhythm of the choreography, as much modern dance as action cinema, gives it a unique personality. It's overly choppy, to be certain; the 2000s did have their mania for cutting action sequences into indiscernible fragments.

So with all that in its favor (not the choppiness), why is Æon Flux such a drab slice of nothing? The clunky delivery of exposition, I've mentioned, is part of it. The flat, dead tone is also part of it, and probably a much bigger part. The film feels like it ought to be funnier and more fun: it has plenty of quips, and a general sense of being a snappy swashbuckler. It's based on a cartoon, for God's sake, and while the television Æon Flux is rather grown-up in its themes and tones by the standards of 1990s American animation, it still focuses first and foremost on fleet, aggressive style and momentum. The movie is fucking ponderous, and much of the blame for that, I am sorry to say, goes directly to Theron. She is only capable of, or interested in getting at the surface of the character as a glamorous, icy assassin, sleek in her black outfits and hairdo. The character as played is mirthless and unfeeling, all smirks and snarls without any kind of shading, and all the lines and plot points trying to get at something different fall completely flat.

With a protagonist like that, it's no wonder that Æon Flux is dreary. But she's as much a symptom as a cause. The film is too mechanically talky to be thought-provoking, despite an at least somewhat brainy backstory; it is too fragmentary and addicted to close-ups to be exciting, despite its balletic action choreography. The sets look nice, and nothing can stop them; but when a movie is this sour and grim, beautiful sets can't do much, and while it's hardly a gruesome train-wreck like critics at the time seemed to think, it's no shame at all that this one is well on the way to being lost to time.