Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Babylon was a waste of my time

In Babylon A.D. it is the not-too-distant future. Thousands of satellites scan, observe and monitor our every move. Much of the planet is a war zone; the rest, a collection of wretched way stations, teeming megalopolises, and vast wastelands punctuated by areas left radioactive from nuclear meltdowns. It is a world made for hardened warriors, one of whom, a mercenary known only as Toorop, lives by a simple survivor's code: kill or be killed. His latest assignment has him smuggling a young woman named Aurora from a convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. Toorop, his new young charge Aurora and Aurora's guardian Sister Rebeka embark on a 6,000-mile journey that takes them from Eastern Europe, through a refugee camp in "New Russia," across the Bering Straight in a pilfered submarine, then through the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada, and finally to New York.
It’s one thing when a studio won’t screen a movie for critics in advance. But when the movie’s director bad-mouths it even before it opens, it’s something entirely else. That’s what Mathieu Kassovitz has done to Babylon A.D., calling it “pure violence and stupidity” and blaming studio interference with the movie he directed and co-wrote (with Joseph Simas, from a novel by Maurice G. Dantec). Kassovitz can pose as an artist undone by front-office meddling, but he sounds more like a man who breaks wind in an elevator, then shouts “Who did that?” in an effort to throw suspicion on somebody else. No matter what the script had that Kassovitz didn’t get to shoot, or what he shot that somebody else cut out, the rest of us have to go by what ends up on the screen, and Babylon A.D. is an unruly disaster.Vin Diesel plays Toorop, a mercenary hired to pick a girl up from a remote monastery in Mongolia and escort her to New York City. He doesn’t know why or who she is, or why he was hired when he can’t even enter the United States because he’s on a terrorist-watch list. He knows only that the man who hired him, one Gorsky (GĂ©rard Depardieu), “needs a man he can trust.”Meanwhile, we see an ascetic-looking woman addressed as “Your Highness” (Charlotte Rampling) being informed that the girl is on her way. “Our miracle is coming!” she rejoices.Questions proliferate early on. This person Diesel is playing, just what is his name (the movie is well along before anyone even pronounces his name clearly enough for us to catch)? Where is this burnt-out slum he’s living in? What year is it exactly—or even approximately, for that matter? Why aren’t Depardieu and Rampling mentioned in the opening credits? (Maybe their agents were watching out for their reputations.) Babylon A.D. is just plain bad; it's the kind of film that's such a waste of time and resources, you have to wonder why it was made in the first place. Babylon A.D. actually gets off to a decent start and there are flashes throughout of the kind of film Kassovitz must have set out to make. As in Children of Men, Babylon offers a vision of the future that is essentially a dilapidated version of the present, where all the impressive technology can't mask how cheap human life has become. Kassovitz seems particularly fascinated by the concept of borders and how much more difficult it becomes to move from country to country in an era of advanced globalization. The film's most memorable scene (or, to be more accurate, its only memorable scene) finds Toorop, Aurora and Sister Rebecca racing dozens of other immigrants to win a spot on the only vessel bound for the Russian border: an ancient Cold War-era submarine where the crew shoots those unlucky enough to make it on in time. Had Kassovitz actually pursued this thematic thread, it might have made the picture an ambitious failure instead of simply a failure. But any deeper ideas are quickly lost amidst the incomprehensible action sequences, the wooden acting and the nonsensical third act, in which the studio's interference becomes blatantly obvious. (If the last scene makes any sense to you, please post an analysis online so the rest of us can figure out what the heck happened.) We can argue over who is ultimately responsible for this mess until the movie turns up on cable, but the fact is, some films are just doomed to failure from the moment they're green-lit despite the best intentions of everyone involved. Babylon A.D. is one of those films. I like Vin, I really do, but this one was doomed before it even came out. Better luck next time. I'm holding out for the next Fast and the Furious movie. A disappointing 2 on my "Go See" scale.

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