This piece is in principle about the Aether Foundation, and we’ll start by talking a little about them. In practise, though, as I hinted last time in my review of Team Skull, it’s actually more a character study of Lusamine, since a lot of the real “villainy” happening in Sun and Moon is a result of her personal actions, either independently of the Foundation itself or abusing her position within it. The interesting thing about Sun and Moon is that, although Team Skull clearly aren’t the villains by the end of the game, the Aether Foundation aren’t really the villains either. In fact, I’m not even sure Lusamine is. Let’s talk about that.
The Aether Foundation markets itself as a conservation non-profit that uses its highly advanced technology to protect endangered species in Alola, conduct cutting-edge environmental research, and maintain an extravagant artificial habitat where at-risk Pokémon can recover from injuries. And… well, that’s all true. We’re kind of primed to expect that it’s a charade, both by everything we saw with Team Plasma in the generation V games, and by the ominous hints dropped by Lillie (and, indeed, Lusamine herself, to say nothing of Faba) throughout the first half of Sun and Moon. Just as Team Plasma and their crusade for “Pokémon liberation” turned out to be Ghetsis’ smokescreen for his dreams of world domination, surely the Aether Foundation is just a front for some dastardly plan to… I don’t know, steal the moon and sell it to the Ultra Beasts or something. The fact is, though, the Aether Foundation’s conservation work is real and remains a valuable asset to Alola after the story ends, under the leadership of Wicke and Gladion (or even, in Ultra SMoon’s version of events, under the resumed leadership of Lusamine herself). They have several small labs around Alola, as well as an orphanage for human children, the Aether House. The work they do in all these places seems to be legitimate, and continues past the end of the story, while members of the Foundation express deep doubts and regrets about their organisation’s role in the Ultra Beast crisis. Their home base, the Aether Paradise, is a marvel of technology and engineering, possibly the best-equipped scientific facility in all of Alola, and a refuge for injured or endangered wild Pokémon of many different species, housed on its beautiful conservation level. The Foundation is what it says it is, and its work is fundamentally benevolent. In the plot of Sun and Moon, though… that mission gets just slightly derailed.
Pokémon likes villains who have, at their core, something noble in their motives, which is corrupted by extremism, unwillingness to compromise, or straight-up megalomania. Archie and Maxie see themselves as fighting to protect Pokémon and restore nature, or to advance the interests of humanity, respectively. Cyrus wants to end all suffering in the universe, forever. Lysandre never shuts up about creating and preserving a “beautiful world.” Ghetsis might actually be awful through-and-through, but he’s balanced by N, who genuinely believes in the cause that Ghetsis only fabricated. And then… there’s Lusamine. Lusamine is Pokémon’s first female character in the structural role of a game’s primary antagonist, and I think it’s no coincidence that her noble core is related to her maternal instincts. Lusamine is driven to protect and nurture – in fact, she believes she can be a “mother” to all Pokémon, everywhere. Her work as the President of the Aether Foundation serves that ambition, extending her protection – her love, as she puts it – to all the vulnerable Pokémon of Alola who are endangered by the actions of humans or of introduced species. Lusamine loves Pokémon, and appears to be loved by them; our first glimpse of her comes when she is surrounded by wild Pokémon living in the Aether Paradise, speaking to them gently and kindly. How can that possibly go wrong? Well, the games kind of tell us – actually, before we even meet Lusamine.
When Wicke explains the Aether Foundation’s mission to us during our first visit to the Aether Paradise, she uses the example of Alola’s Corsola population, which the Foundation wants to protect from predation by Toxapex. My question on hearing this was whether the Foundation even ought to be meddling in this. Wicke quotes a Pokédex entry that stresses the brutality of Toxapex predation, but Toxapex are apparently a native species in Alola, and their relationship with Corsola is presumably a natural one that forms part of a complex and delicate ecological system. Even Hau (…out of the mouths of babes…) characterises the situation by saying “nature’s got its cruel side, sure as it gives us blessings,” and questions whether it’s practical for the Aether Foundation to try to protect all Pokémon. Wicke’s attitude in this scene is, in part, an unavoidable consequence of Toxapex’s design inspiration – it’s based on the notorious crown-of-thorns starfish, and you can read about that in my entry on Toxapex – but I find it difficult to avoid the implication that the Aether Foundation might be interested in protecting Corsola, possibly at the expense of Mareanie and Toxapex, because Corsola are cute and Toxapex are ugly. This scene is immediately followed by our introduction to Lusamine, and I think we’re supposed to have it in mind when we read her character. Seen retrospectively in that light, it’s a brilliant scene, because the ecological drama and the Aether Foundation’s response to it encapsulate Lusamine’s most important character flaws. Think of her relationship with her children, especially with Lillie, who is “not beautiful enough” for Lusamine. According to Lillie, Lusamine “is selfish. She lavishes her love only on those she deems worthy, not caring whether it is wanted or not.” Lusamine’s love for her children, while it seems to have been genuine before her obsession with Ultra Space sent her off the rails, was stifling and kept them from growing independently – and when they tried to break free of her, she disowned them, becoming positively icy in future interactions (in fairness to her, they did both commit fairly significant acts of industrial espionage).
During our first meeting with Lusamine, we are interrupted by the sudden opening on the Paradise’s conservation level of an Ultra Wormhole that disgorges a wild Nihilego. Lusamine responds to a strange alien Pokémon appearing in her facility not with fear or anger but with wonder, compassion and… disturbing hints of obsession. “It looked like it was suffering…” she observes pensively after Nihilego is driven off, “like it pained it to be in this strange place… I can’t bear to see that happen! I will save it! And I will love it!” Lusamine thinks her “love” is benevolent, but in reality what she’s talking about is control and possession – in this way, her attitude towards Pokémon, the Ultra Beasts and the Foundation’s mission mirrors her relationship with her children, as they describe it. The ultimate expression of all this, of course, is the gruesome sight of Lusamine’s private lab at the heart of the Aether Paradise, where she keeps a collection of Pokémon frozen in cryo-stasis so that they will be “preserved for eternity.” They are her “precious babies.” She “loves” them. She wants them to be perfect and beautiful forever – just like she wanted her daughter to be perfect and beautiful forever. As leader of the Aether Foundation, Lusamine cares for Pokémon that are beautiful to her to a worryingly obsessive extent, lavishing resources to “protect” them from natural predation, heedless of her actions’ effects on the Alolan ecosystem, or locking them away in horrifying stasis galleries. Once she decides that only the Ultra Beasts are beautiful enough for her, discarding other Pokémon just as she discarded her children (in the final battle, she gives a spiel about how everyone already tacitly accepts that trainers have the right to do this), the consequences for Alola become catastrophic. In the aftermath of the events of Ultra SMoon, when we see her beginning to come to terms with her own failings, Lusamine muses that in the future she needs to “be strong enough to watch over [her children] without interfering from now on” – suggesting that this is indeed what the writers understand to be the point of her character arc.
Lusamine’s descent into madness began well before our own story, when her husband, a scientist like Lusamine herself, disappeared while researching Ultra Wormholes. Sun and Moon heavily imply, and the sequels confirm, that Lusamine’s missing husband is Mohn, the jolly amnesiac who runs the Poké Pelago, the remote chain of small islands where boxed Pokémon spend their down time in the Alola games. The loss of her husband seems to have fuelled in Lusamine an obsession with Ultra Space and its enigmatic inhabitants, the Ultra Beasts (and plausibly could have provoked the shift in her nature towards possessiveness and narcissism). Both of the labs we are able to investigate on the research level of the Aether Paradise are devoted to Ultra Space-related projects. One is the lab that created Gladion’s mysterious partner Pokémon, Type: Null, with the specific aim of building a “Beast-Killer,” an artificial Pokémon that would be able to fight and defeat Ultra Beasts. In the other, we find notes on the Aether Foundation’s research into Cosmog – research that was disrupted by Lusamine’s other wayward child, Lillie, when she stole Nebby, around the time the game begins. Even as an infant, Nebby the Cosmog has the power to open Ultra Wormholes, and the stellar gasses that make up its body can apparently be used to simulate that power artificially. It’s possible that the Type: Null research dates to shortly after Mohn’s disappearance, when Lusamine viewed the Ultra Beasts as a threat, while the Cosmog research is more recent, reflecting her desire to study the Ultra Beasts and even protect them rather than fight against them. In studying Cosmog, she evidently conceived of a plan to bring Ultra Beasts into Alola where she could care for them, apparently heedless of the damage this would do to the ecosystem she was already sworn to protect. Her work was disrupted by Lillie; however, the Foundation still had samples of Nebby’s gaseous body and was able to keep experimenting. When Lusamine agonises about the pain Nihilego suffers by being in an unfamiliar world… well, it was summoned there at her direction, using those wisps of cosmic matter.
After being confronted, Lusamine pretty well goes off the deep end, and it’s implied that some of her unhinged rant during the final battle in Ultra Space is the result of her prolonged exposure to Nihilego’s mind-affecting powers. However, it’s not clear to what degree Nihilego is able to influence her, or when it started. Nihilego isn’t a Psychic Pokémon, but a Poison Pokémon, and its influence over its hosts is produced by venom, not telepathy. While its appearance is suggestive of the tentacled monstrosities of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, there otherwise isn’t any evidence that it could have manipulated Lusamine via “whispers from the void.” Everything we know from the Pokédex suggests that proximity is a requirement, and she doesn’t seem to have met one in person prior to our first visit to the Paradise. Based on what we learn later, it seems like she’d been working towards that for a while and conducting experiments with Cosmog specifically with the goal of summoning an Ultra Beast – and all of that pretty much has to be on her. She might even have had some way of observing Ultra Beasts without opening a wormhole. I’m far from the first to notice the resemblance in shape between Nihilego and Lillie in her original hairstyle and wide-brimmed hat. This could be just a weird coincidence – but we know from some of Lusamine’s comments to Hau and Gladion that her desire to control her children extends to their personal style. At the beginning of the game, Lillie probably dresses and styles her hair the way her mother told her to – plausibly because her mother is already obsessed with Nihilego. Moreover, Nihilego can’t control a person’s mind. Its venom, according to Wicke, provokes intense excitement, enhances its host’s abilities and – crucially – strips them of all inhibition. We’re probably meant to understand that changes in the host’s behaviour primarily result from loss of self-control – in Freudian terms, the suppression of the “ego,” hence Nihilego’s name. The host is empowered to pursue whatever whimsical desire strikes them from moment to moment, no matter how irresponsible or dangerous, and simultaneously loses the judgement and discretion that would normally keep them from pursuing those desires at all costs. Nihilego didn’t make Lusamine narcissistic and monomaniacal; it just “freed” her to express those traits, which she would have otherwise suppressed.
To reiterate, Nihilego is an enabler, but the behaviour it enables and accentuates is fundamentally Lusamine’s own. Lillie understands this, but still pursues her mother with the aim of talking her down and saving her from herself. The result is that, when we have our final confrontation with Lusamine in the Ultra Deep Sea, we aren’t fighting for the fate of the world, or of the universe, or for the lives of humans and Pokémon, or for the ideology of Pokémon training itself, because Lusamine doesn’t actually care about any of that. We aren’t even fighting to preserve law and order. Lusamine released countless Ultra Beasts into Alola, but the four Tapu and their human servants, the Kahunas, seem to have that side of the conflict well in hand. Besides, it’s not clear that defeating Lusamine even does anything to help them; there’s still a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards, in concert with the International Police. Meanwhile, Team Skull is no threat without their violent and impulsive boss, who is stranded with Lusamine in Ultra Space. No – by the end of it all, out there in a strange place beyond the world we know and surrounded by mysterious, alien creatures, we’re fighting for Lillie’s relationship with her mother, and the payoff is Lusamine’s line at the very end, when Nihilego has abandoned her and she realises how far her daughter has come to get her back: “Lillie… When did you… start becoming beautiful?” On a material level, it’s… weirdly, the lowest-stakes final confrontation in Pokémon’s history, but emotionally it means more to the main characters of the story than any other except for those of the Unova games (where the final conflict is about saving the world, but also about N’s relationship with his “father”). The same conflict continues past the end of our involvement in the plot, with Lillie becoming essentially her mother’s caregiver and leaving Alola with her to seek specialised medical treatment. All of this is an interesting choice, kind of a daring one, and one I actually sort of respect.
So… y’know, obviously we had to cut that out of Ultra SMoon and have the final conflict be a battle with Ultra Necrozma to prevent it from causing some kind of transdimensional apocalypse of infinite night.
I have… very mixed feelings about Ultra SMoon. In the aftermath of that story’s climax, we see Lusamine reconcile with her children and resume her position at the head of the Aether Foundation to continue its good work. She even makes peace with the loss of her husband, who visits the Paradise at one point, but has no memory of the facility or of Lusamine herself – she decides to leave him as he is, because she recognises that he’s happy in his new life, something the “old” Lusamine would never do. All this clearly seems like it’s meant to continue Lusamine’s story from the point where Sun and Moon leave off, as her life returns to normal and her family puts itself back together after the trauma of their experiences with Nihilego. Only… in these newer games’ continuity, the events of the climax of Sun and Moon didn’t actually happen. Lusamine wasn’t entranced into leaving her children to live in Ultra Space with Nihilego, she wasn’t rescued by her daughter, causing her to remember the true love she once felt for her children, and she didn’t suffer from a wasting sickness due to overexposure to Nihilego’s toxins, forcing her to travel to Kanto with Lillie to seek special medical treatment. In fact, she travelled to Ultra Megalopolis specifically to confront Necrozma, and believed she was protecting Alola by doing so. And… honestly, despite the furious disapproval this earns her from the Ultra Recon Squad, I’m not even sure she was wrong. They slam her for having the arrogance to think that she could defeat Necrozma alone, but… well, the player eventually does defeat Necrozma alone, and Lusamine is a gifted and experienced Pokémon trainer. This doesn’t seem like it was a bad play on her part.
Frankly, if it weren’t for the gallery of frozen Pokémon (a piece of scenery that appears one time, isn’t material to the plot, and in retrospect just seems incredibly jarring as a part of this story, because there’s no Ultra Space confrontation with Lusamine to pick up after it), I don’t even think I could definitively say that Lusamine does anything wrong in Ultra SMoon, other than being a bad parent. The story just doesn’t hang together as well or have as much thematic unity. It actually feels a bit like some Pokémon movies, in that the need to feature the abilities of a particular legendary Pokémon has taken precedence over telling an effective story. Lusamine’s experiences with Necrozma do ultimately teach her the same lesson as she learned with Nihilego in the original games – that she can’t control everything or protect everyone, and needs to respect the autonomy of others and the wishes of the people she loves. But the best version of that story is one that splices together the climax of the original Sun and Moon with the postgame of Ultra SMoon, and the whole thing is just… messy. The new material with the Ultra Recon Squad, Necrozma and Ultra Megalopolis is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but as things are, they don’t quite belong in the story they’ve been inserted into. I think this all would have worked if Ultra SMoon had been done as direct sequels, à la Black and White 2, and part of me wonders whether this might, at one point, have been what was actually planned. Those are presumably a lot more time-consuming and expensive to make than the more traditional “expansion”-style games, though, so it’s difficult to say “this is what they should have done” without insider information about stuff like budgets and production timelines, but… well, in a perfect world this is what they should have done.
I think the real takeaway from both Team Skull and the Aether Foundation is that Pokémon doesn’t think it necessarily needs “villains” anymore. Real massive-scope megalomania in the mould of generations III through VI is part of the “toolbox,” and the Team Rainbow Rocket saga demonstrates that we’re not swearing it off, but it doesn’t have to be what drives every plot. Sun and Moon don’t really have “villains” in the textbook Pokémon sense, but the antagonists they have instead are, in my opinion, actually quite interesting and add a lot to the story and themes of the games. Sword and Shield could well be more of this new direction, with Team Yell, the football-hooligan “designated villains” seeming like a decoy threat at most. Only time will tell…