A film review by Craig J. Koban

BABYLON A.D. jj

2008, PG-13, 96 mins.

 

Vin Diesel: Toorop / Michelle Yeoh: Sister Rebeka / Mélanie Thierry: Aurora / Gérard Depardieu: Gorsky

Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz / Written by Mathieu Kassovitz and Joseph Simas, based on the novel BABYLON BABIES by Maurice G. Dantec

20th Century Fox's Babylon A.D.

BABYLON A.D. is a rare film that daringly straddles between awfulness and greatness and wages war within itself: it's a work of some very bizarre contradictions.  On one hand, it’s a stunningly realized triumph of production design that draws some very worthwhile comparisons to other landmark dystopian sci-fi thrillers like BLADE RUNNER and CHILDREN OF MEN.  On a whole different level, BABYLON A.D. is a complete whitewash affair as a coherent narrative.  The film’s overall plot is muddled, confusing, disorganized, and remorselessly messy and nonsensical.  What’s worse is the fact that the film suffers what appears to be one of the most haphazardly executed third acts I've seen.  

Great looking films should not be so unsavorily mismanaged as this one, but that is the only manner that I can adeptly describe BABYLON A.D..  There is a very, very good film to be made from this material: it has a really solid cast with some respectable performances, not to mention that its director – Mathieu Kassovitz, very much lauded in is native France – is a filmmaker of real vision and skill.  However, a script that is about as misshapen and underwritten as they come wholeheartedly trumps all of these good elements.  Instead, we are greeted with an intriguing premise, some interesting themes, and some truly inspired visuals that are almost undone by a screenplay that’s totally adrift without focus and lucidity. 

If there were one major flaw of the story then it would certainly be in the way it fails to ground or explain its universe for the audience.  The film - based on a very obscure book called BAYBLON BABIES by French author Maurice G. Dantec – is set in the future, but there is very little information or exposition to provide us with some insight about this future.  Yes, sometimes there is nothing more annoying that a film that goes out of its way to explain every single narrative detail: there’s an argument to be made for lunging audiences head on into a film and never looking back.  Alas, BABYLON A.D. just sort of drops viewers off in a future world of social and political upheaval.  In short, it’s grim.  Unfortunately, you never really get a real insight into the where’s and why’s, which only exasperates the laziness of the script. 

Okay, so BABYLON A.D. takes place in the future.  Fine.  At least it looks impressive.  The film has a real scope with its dingy  locales and gritty verisimilitude.  Eastern Europe of 2019 is a landscape awash in the grungy and chaotic aftershocks of what appears to be some sort of massive armed conflict that has left the Russia fractured and broken.  Many moments in BABYLON A.D. reminded me strongly of Alfonso Cuarón’s militaristic and doomed vision of 2027 London in his remarkable CHILDREN OF MEN in the way it creates such an elaborate sense of environmental and social decay.  Kassovitz intuitively understands how to marry subtle visual effects, ragged and scruffy set design, and a near painterly eye for detail in some of his compositions.  No mistake about it, this post-apocalyptic wasteland is never dull to look at: there is a palpable sense of lush and foreboding atmosphere here. 

There is a lonely, tough as nails, and fiercely independent and introverted Man With No Name, but with a name,  anti-hero in the film named Toorop (Vin Diesel, in all of his physically sculpted and gravel voiced vigor), who works as a mercenary that has been all but been banished from the United States as a terrorist.  He works in the dilapidated ruins of Russia as a merc for hire whose services are purchased by a crook named Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu, barely recognizable under his makeup).  Gorsky gives Toorop a rather dangerous assignment: pick up a mysterious young woman from a secluded religious convent in Eastern Europe and then deliver her to the high priestess of the same religious organization in New York.  The girl in question is named Aurora (the very fetching and quite decent Mélanie Thierry) who is accompanied by her psuedo-mother and guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh, in what has to be the most dexterous ass-kickin’ nun in a long time).  Aurora seems like just another drop dead gorgeous religious zealot, but she exhibits some decidedly strange gifts.   There are times, for instance, where she can predict things before they occur and other times she displays an intimate knowledge of things she should never have, like piloting a nuclear submarine.  She was also a very atypically smart baby, and by smart I mean she could fluently speak 19 languages by the age two. 

Needless to say, Toorop at first cares little about this young girl’s back-story or any other particulars.  All he does concern himself with is getting her across the border and fulfilling his end of the bargain.  Their trek is physically treacherous, which takes them from the ravaged former Soviet Union to the frozen tundra of Alaska to the tranquility of Canada (phew, my home and native land is spared in the future) and eventually to the Big Apple, a neon colored mega-metropolis that makes Las Vegas look like a dim Christmas tree.  The longer the journey lasts the more Toorop begins to open up to his enigmatic and mysterious “package”, which boils down to a serious of moral setbacks which leads him to challenge is own problematic sense of right and wrong. 

Again, the best thing I will say about BABYLON A.D. is that it visually goes a long way on its fairly sparse $60 million budget.  There are moments where the art design and special effects are stunning and instill a sense of awe.  The miserable vestiges of a ram sacked and pillaged Europe are eerily evocative early on in the film, and some individual moments have a breathtaking scale (a very long tracking shot that opens the film is remarkably handled, as is a montage that shows hundreds of immigrants running over a frozen section of an ocean to reach a vast submarine that has surfaced through the broken ice, which is quietly exhilarating and powerful).  Then there are the later establishing shots of New York of the future, which reminded me of the limitless expansiveness of 2019 L.A. in BLADE RUNNER.  Kassovitz's eye for detail and composting the real and the unreal here is quite remarkable. 

Then there’s the not quite so good, like, for starters, the film’s cluttered action sequences (many times it's difficult to get an impression as to the people involved and how the action is rationally flowing from one beat to the next).  Instead of feeding off the action and stunt pieces as pure adrenaline induced spectacle, one easily becomes distracted by them.  The screenplay is the biggest causality of BABYLON A.D.  There are some sobering themes here, to be sure, like how countries will be run by corporately sponsored governments and religions in the future and how they will be the saviors of troubled post-war nations, not to mention the polarizing issue of human trafficking.  Most of the substance of these themes are only sketchily developed and when they are dwelled on, they are almost lazy afterthoughts.  BAYBLON A.D. could have placed considerably more emphasis on its thought provoking geopolitical issues.  Instead, we get mindless, monotonous, and disjointed action scenes and little, if any, thrills and intrigue.  

The overall script is also mind-numbingly confusing and takes weird tonal shifts.  Consider the character of Aurora: the film teases us with aspects of her upbringing and parental heritage. Is she real or a manufactured human with lineage to highly omnipotent artificial intelligence?  The script never really decides, not to mention that the main villain in the film, the head of the New York religious cult (played by Charlotte Rampling) is never thoroughly and satisfactorily realized as a worthwhile antagonist.  Her motives are about as sloppily executed and written as another character in the film, played by Lambert Wilson, who may or may not be Aurora's father.  BAYBLON A.D.’s final fifteen minutes are resplendently baffling and insipid.  One character dies and is resurrected from the dead for reasons I am still trying to understand, not to mention that another character manages to survive during a hellish explosion that should have decimated several city blocks.  The final few minutes in the film then shows what I think is this same character’s death (actually, the script forces us to just assume that) and is followed by a concluding scene that certainly feels like it was ripped from the editing bay of another film altogether.   

I may sound like I am being overpoweringly negative in my review thus far, but there are elements that I truly admired in BABYLON A.D.. The film’s consummate look and feel is grand and the performances by Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry are quite good.  Vin Diesel is as solid as he can be here in pure action hero mode and, contrary to popular opinion, he is a very good actor if one looks beyond roles that require him to play opposite of explosions and gunfire (for example, just look at his work playing against type in films like FIND ME GUILTY, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, BOILER ROOM, and, yes, his very funny turn in THE PACIFIER).  He is not the problem with this film.

Perhaps the harshest critic of BABYLON A.D. is actually the director Kassovitz himself, who complained about stubborn and manipulative studio meddling and interference with the troublesome and over budgeted production (“I never had a chance to do one scene the way it was written or the way I wanted it to be,” he stated in a recent and very public statement about the film).  The final straw that broke the director’s back was when 20th Century Fox stepped in and apparently re-edited the film from Kassovitz's original running time to 96 minutes, which he considers a bastardization of the whole artistic process of making movies.  Perhaps he has a point.  I believe that Kassovitz has emerged fairly unscathed from this film, especially if what he said about studio interference is true, and he is a filmmaker of obvious talent.  Perhaps what’s most damning about BABYLON A.D. is not what an inconsistent film experience it is in current form, but rather that nagging what if thought of what could have been

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