Judge Adam Arseneau is a Babylon baby.
Our review of Babylon A.D. Special Edition, published January 6th, 2009, is also available.
Raw and uncut!
Okay, I'll say it: Babylon A.D. isn't as bad as everyone says it is. People are going on about it like it's the equivalent of cinematic AIDS. Rest assured, it is not.
Maybe like cinematic Chlamydia. Which, anyone would admit, isn't nearly a bad, right? Wouldn't you rather have that over…you know…ah, forget it. This metaphor was terrible before I even finished typing it out. I'm sorry.
Not as sorry as Fox must be though. Ouch.
Facts of the Case
Mercenary-for-hire Toorop (Vin Diesel, xXx) is enjoying a quiet, cautious life in Eastern Europe in a dystopic futuristic wasteland when a mobster (Gérard Depardieu, Green Card) approaches him with an offer to smuggle a human girl into New York City. In exchange, Toorop will make a hell of a lot of money and obtain a new identity, which would allow him to return to his home country, where he currently sits on a terrorist watch list.
Cautiously optimistic, Toorop picks up his charge, a beautiful young woman named Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) and her keeper, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Armed with a metric tonne of weapons, the three venture across the Russian landscape, pursued by an unknown group intent on capturing Aurora for unknown reasons. The closer Toorop gets to his destination, the more he begins to realize he may be part of a bigger, more sinister scenario. Whoever Aurora is, it becomes clear that unknown parties are fighting over her destiny, and the fate of the world may hang in the balance.
In the great cinematic blender of genre-heisting and idea thievery, Babylon A.D. falls somewhere in between Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the same way that children fall somewhere between a husband and a wife's messy divorce. And just like a marriage gone sour, things are actually okay right until the end, where everyone goes crazy and starts throwing things. Then the lawyers get involved.
Babylon A.D. is an uncomfortable film for everyone involved, both for creators and audiences unlucky enough to bear witness to it. Indeed, director Mathieu Kassovitz took unprecedented and public steps to distance himself from the project weeks and months before Babylon A.D. even opened. Never a good sign to be sure, but boy was he right: this derails itself faster and more spectacularly than any other film in recent memory. Poor Kassovitz. First Gothika, now this…I'm convinced the fates will simply not let him make a good movie in North America. A bad film is one thing, but Babylon A.D. is that special kind of disaster, like a roadside explosive throwing a neat and organized convoy into a disarray of shrapnel and carnage.
There is a sequence where the female lead runs into a tiger in a cage. The tiger snarls menacingly, baring its fangs, its breath heavy in the wintry air. When she and the hero discuss the encounter later, she muses it must have been a fake tiger, since real Siberian tigers went extinct years ago. The hero confirms this, saying it was a second-generation clone of a tiger—a copy of a copy. This is the perfect way to describe Babylon A.D.; a simulacra of a sci-fi action film, but not quite real. It has big explosions, numerous action sequences, stylish set design, competent direction, even occasionally interesting characters, but one never quite shakes off the feeling of how artificial it is, nor how contrived and inorganic it feels. It looks shiny, but reeks of imitation. There are whiffs of original thought, complex themes of nihilism, religious salvation, and redemption in a post-Apocalyptic world, but then Vin Diesel shows up and ruins it.
To give credit where credit is due, Babylon A.D. can almost be fun, in a grimy sort of way, with its hero slumming about in nuclear wastelands, Serbian hell holes, and Russian markets, toting guns and kicking ass…but only for the first two acts. There is not an original idea to be found here, but neither is there anything overtly offensive taking place to make us hate the film…at least not yet. Babylon A.D. almost convinces audiences it has a plan, it knows what it's doing, and yes, it's leading up to something important. All sweet, sweet lies, but one cannot overstate the sheer amusement of watching so much time, energy, creative direction, and money self-destruct in front of their eyes in the comfort of their own living room.
There is a certain perverse element of schadenfreude involved, taking delight in the suffering and disemboweling of Babylon A.D during its final sporadic moments. I mean, think about it: talented director, moronic but functional action star, pretty women, hilarious cameos, and big-name French actors…all disintegrated by the heat of its own narrative, burning itself to death in a few scattered, confusing moments of insanity. One moment, the film is gliding along on stable (if clichéd) rails, solidly riding the Mediocre train into its third act, and then, kaboom! Total protonic reversal! I'm not proud to admit it, but it's like gawking at a twisted mangled car crash—impossible to look away.
There isn't really enough to salvage in Babylon A.D. to recommend it, sadly; not even as an exercise in cinematic hari-kari. I don't want to spoil the "ending" for anyone, but neither can I say in good conscience to go out and see it, because it's bad. It's really bad. The acting is too poor and the story too uninspiring to really generate any interest beyond the sheer voyeuristic thrill of the third act. The action sequences feel truncated and wooden, the camera cutting away just before things get good (which makes sense, considering the truncation down to a PG-13 rating). Vin Diesel is a big burly fellow, and at times you can (almost) understand why people keep paying him money to show up in their films, but once the fists lower and the gunfights stop, the horror creeps back in. The dude is a lousy actor, full stop. While it is great to see people like Michelle Yeoh and Gerard Depardieu, the end effect is like putting makeup on a pig. They do what they can, but the material ultimately sabotages itself. Even the charming doe-eyed beauty of Melanie Thierry fails to make an impact. Putting talented actors and pretty girls on a derailing train will not make the train wreck any less spectacular. Blame Newton's Three Laws of Motion for that one.
At least the Blu-Ray presentation is a contender. I admit, even a bad movie can be made more enjoyable by playing it really loud and in high definition (at least until the ears and eyes start to bleed). The 1080p presentation, aside from some inconstant grain levels, is top-notch; black levels are solid, whites are crisp, and colors are stylistically muted into grays and blues to fit the dystopic subject matter. Detail levels are impressive and rich, with even the most minutiae of on-screen elements rendered in crystal clear fidelity. The only noticeable flaw is the shift from panoramic outdoor sequences to dimly-lit indoor sequences, where grain levels fluxuate noticeably. A minor grievance to be sure.
As for audio, the DTS-HD Master Audio (lossless) track is full, forceful, and perfectly realized, matching every on-screen action with perfect sonic location throughout all channels. Bass response is aggressive like an energetic child, anxious to get up and break something made of glass in your house, so watch your LFE. Dialogue is crisp and clear, although the transition between high-action and muted dialogue sequences will lend to some volume-fiddling to compensate. The soundtrack is a pounding blend of heavy rock and hip-hop, and fits the mood of the film perfectly. The score by Hans Zimmer is not his best, but matches well with the moody, humorless tone of the film.
As for extras, Babylon A.D. (Blu-Ray) has an adequate assortment of goodies, but nothing groundbreaking, especially compared to the standard definition DVD release. Unique to this Blu-ray presentation is BonusView content, provided you have a player compatible with Profile 1.1 or above, offering on-screen behind-the-scene footage and interviews to pop up during the feature playback. We get two: "Scene Evolution," going behind-the-scenes during filming for on-set instructions by crew and director, and "Babylon A.D. Commercials," which offer cute little in-movie commercials for vacation packages, neuro space creations, and other sillies. The BonusView content is admittedly gimmicky in its current incarnation, but at least they can be accessed as standalone features via the Blu-ray menu. Oddly enough, despite being Blu-ray content, they don't seem to be presented in high definition, at least when viewed in standalone format. Strange. We also get D-Box Motion Codes, an extra feature that activates some manner of rumbling chair, provided you own a D-Box system.
The rest of the content pretty much mirrors the standard DVD release. Five featurettes are included: "Babylon Babies," "Arctic Escape," "Fit For The Screen," "Flight Of The Hummers," and "Prequel to Bablyon A.D.: Genesis of Aurora." These also appear on the DVD, but we get them in high definition here (both 1080i and 1080p depending on the feature), which is a nice touch. They discuss, in order, the novel in which the movie was based, stunt sequence coordination for the arctic escape chase sequence, fist fight sequence coordination, car case coordination and an on-screen graphic novel that makes a flailing attempt to expand upon the back story of Aurora that no doubt got left on the editing room floor. We get one deleted scene, "Hummer Sequence" (which sounds 50% more sexy than it actually is), a still gallery, and trailers to round out the set.
Finally, a second disc contains a digital copy of the film which can be ported to your favorite portable device, for consumption on the road via Apple iTunes or Windows PlaysForSure-compatible players. It's nice to see studios offering this feature, as it addresses a long-standing consumer need to be able to access their purchased media whenever and wherever they choose, but I question the sanity of anyone who puts Babylon A.D. on their iPhone to go.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The aggravating thing about Babylon A.D. is how much potential it shows during brief moments, like a sputtering light bulb desperately trying to remain incandescent. The film is an unmitigated mess to be sure, but only really in the last twenty minutes or so. One gets the impression it might have been okay (unoriginal, but okay) before whatever horrible things were done to it in an editing bay. Whether director or studio is to blame for the cocking-up is best left to other forums for exploration.
Even if left whole and unaltered, Babylon A.D. would at best have been a mediocre film criticized for liberally stealing from better, more seminal films, and teased incessantly for being silly enough to put Vin Diesel in it. But man, it would have been better than…this.
Babylon A.D. is the perfect example of what happens when a creative visionary spending too much money comes in conflict with those who are paying a creative visionary to spend all their money. The end result is a film that satisfies neither; a jumbled, broken, lurching mess of a genre film unable to right itself, like a turtle on its back kicking its little tiny legs haplessly in the air. Also (and I cannot emphasize this enough) they put Vin Diesel in it.
Regardless of who ultimately ends up taking the blame for Babylon A.D., the people who really get shafted are those foolish enough to purchase this abomination. Still, if you are forced at gunpoint to experience this one, definitely do it on Blu-ray. A lousy film to be sure, but one with a very strong technical presentation.
Avoid it like cinematic Chlamydia. Or at least until a director's cut emerges that restores some sense into this thing.
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