Fox // 2008 // 101 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // January 6th, 2009
"You need two things to live in this business, your balls and your word. You don't have either!"
When a director describes his own film as "pure violence and stupidity," you know something isn't quite right. Production on Babylon A.D., a film adaptation of Maurice G. Dantec's cyberpunk novel Babylon Babies, had been beset by a series of problems from the start. From uncooperative weather to problems with constructing the sets, the film was soon running over budget and behind schedule. Worse still, director Mathieu Kassovitz's vision of how the final film should turn out differed somewhat from that of Fox, the studio distributing it, resulting in the director publicly criticizing both the film and the studio.
Universally panned, and bombing at the box office, Babylon A.D. comes to DVD with its reputation in tatters. But DVD has been a format where many films have been reborn, and Babylon A.D. is no exception. Those who purchase the movie are sure to see it take on a second life...as a coaster, perhaps.
Mercenary-for-hire Toorop (Vin Diesel, Pitch Black) is approached by Russian gangster Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu, Green Card) and tasked with transporting a young woman, named Aurora (Melanie Thierry), across Eastern Europe and into America. Collecting Aurora from the Neolite convent in which she has apparently spent her whole life, Toorop learns they will be accompanied on their journey by Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Aurora's guardian.
Utilizing Toorop's contacts, the trio begins a perilous journey through the dangerous streets of Russia. But while terrorist activity and rival mercenaries prove deadly, Aurora begins exhibiting troubling behavior of her own, showing an awareness of incoming danger and ability to feel the pain of others. When Toorop arranges for the group to travel across to Canada in a submarine, Sister Rebeka confides in him that Aurora had shown special abilities as a very young child. Not only could she speak nineteen different languages by the age of two, she was also able to perform abilities beyond her own understanding or experience.
Upon arrival in New York City the trio learn that the Neolite convent has been bombed, apparently in an act of terrorism. They are soon met by a doctor, acting on behalf of the Neolite's, who examines Aurora before Toroop hands her over, as had been arranged. However, when Aurora makes the sudden announcement that she is pregnant, despite being a virgin, Toroop begins to wonder if the girl he has been transporting all this time may actually be of more importance than he first thought, perhaps even the savior of mankind.
What a mess. Babylon A.D. is surely one of the worst films to come out of Hollywood in 2008, seemingly unsure of exactly what it's supposed to be and lacking any semblance of a coherent storyline. Due to a similar premise and a not dissimilar setting, comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men are inevitable. But where Cuaron was able to craft one of the finest thrillers of the decade, director Mathieu Kassovitz has ended up with an unmitigated disaster on his hands. Having had the film in development for five years, Kassovitz apparently had creative control wrestled from him due to studio interference, which resulted in the screenplay being largely ignored and chunks of the film being cut in an attempt to make an audience-friendly 90-minute, PG-13 movie.
Most of the film's problems don't really become evident until the final act. Until then Babylon A.D. is a fairly formulaic action movie, albeit with pretensions of being something far deeper. With a religious sect intent on bringing forth the messiah, genetic engineering, and frequent acts of terrorism, there is plenty going on, unfortunately it's all dull as hell and all too often inconsequential, making the whole experience a little disorienting. The action sequences that frequently punctuate the narrative are so lacking in excitement as to be rendered pointless, totally lacking in dynamism, and shot with little to no style. But while acts One and Two may be dull, they at least manage to make some kind of sense. Come the arrival of Act Three, however, and all logic goes out the window as Babylon A.D. becomes an incoherent muddle. New characters are suddenly introduced, chiefly Darquandier (Lambert Wilson, The Matrix Reloaded), who attempts to explain what is going on, but actually only serves to confuse matters further and spouts some of the most embarrassing dialogue imaginable. Meanwhile other characters are severely neglected, their ultimate fates being either too ambiguous or simply ignored altogether.
Vin Diesel proves once again that he is lacking the range necessary to really cut it as an actor; his whole gig being based on his imposing frame and hard man image. His performance here is one of the more wooden of his career, with his only expression being one of mild disinterest. Even when confronted by a partially clothed Melanie Thierry, Diesel seems incapable of raising an eyebrow, let alone anything else. Michelle Yeoh does her best, but the material she is given does little to prove her acting ability; a fight sequence in a nightclub does at least provide a decent showcase for her martial arts skills, though. Melanie Thierry suffers a similar fate to Yeoh, and as such is unlikely to put Babylon A.D. high up on her C.V. Both Lambert Wilson and Gerard Depardieu have both done much better work, and are hindered to no end here by some truly awful dialogue and embarrassing costumes.
Criticizing director Mathieu Kassovitz feels a little unfair. With his own scathing judgment on the finished film being well publicized, Kassovitz has clearly cited the reasons for the film's failure, with even star man Vin Diesel appearing to backup the director's claims. While I don't doubt for one second that Babylon A.D. would have been a far superior film had Kassovitz been afforded the time and space needed to complete the movie in the way he intended, it's also true to say that the director must also take some responsibility for the film's failings. While I can happily accept that the shortened running time meant character-based scenes were omitted, losing the film some much needed depth, Kassovitz must surely take some of the blame for the distinct lack of excitement or ingenuity shown in the action sequences. It's easy to understand how, after the studio's interference, Kassovitz's heart was no longer in the project, but it's equally disappointing that he wasn't able to salvage anything worthwhile. It's also worth pointing out that this DVD release reinstates some footage missing from the theatrical cut, which apparently goes some way to improving the film. Having not seen the movie on its theatrical release I'm not really able to comment on this, except to say that the theatrical cut would have to go some to top this stinker.
Having been sent a screener copy of Babylon A.D., any judgment on the quality of the video transfer is made difficult. Though colors appear strong, with the final scenes set in New York being particularly impressive, the image frequently suffers from blocking, though remains sharp throughout. Expect the final retail copy to clear up most of these problems. Audio is much better, with the nightclub scene being particularly impressive and making fine use of the rear speakers. The bass-heavy soundtrack, featuring collaborations between Hans Zimmer and The RZA, is far better than the film deserves, and sounds fantastic on DVD.
Extras are reasonable, if a little uninspiring. The best of these special features is the short animation "Genesis of Aurora." Helping to provide a little more understanding on the events in the film, this is the one extra that really goes beyond the usual deleted scenes/making of. There's a mildly interesting featurette on the "Arctic Escape" sequence, while the one deleted scene, titled the "Hummer Sequence," didn't live up to its name, though perhaps that was due to a misunderstanding on my part.
While Babylon A.D. has no saving graces, not every aspect of its production is completely wretched. Though never straying too far from similarly themed movies, Babylon A.D. features some impressive set designs. The war-torn streets of Eastern Europe are well realized, even if they are carbon copies of the street scenes in Children of Men. When the film moves to the USA, and in particular New York City, the film takes on a Blade Runner-style vision of a futuristic metropolis. Like earlier scenes the designs are striking, if completely derivative of other, much better, works.
A prime example of a film where the studio should have shown faith in their director, Babylon A.D. promised much, but delivers so very little. While Kassovitz is likely to bounce back, Vin Diesel's career seems to be at its lowest ebb; his return to the Fast and the Furious franchise could ultimately make or break him, but on the evidence of Babylon A.D., a future in the DTV market seems inevitable.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scene
* Prequel: Genesis Of Aurora
* Official Site