Monday, September 8, 2008

'Babylon' A Failure of Biblical Proportions

Have you ever wondered what waterboarding feels like but didn’t want to get your good shirt wet? Might I then suggest this film, which certainly made me feel like I was drowning. More a lame pastiche of nearly every notable piece of cyberpunk and dystopic fiction than an actual film, Babylon A.D. takes every last good idea introduced in science fiction cinema since Blade Runner and grinds it into dust in the span of 90 minutes.

The plot, if it can be so called, centers on Toorop, a mercenary living out his days in Russia after being classified as a terrorist in the United States. His latest mission? Deliver a young teenager and the nun who cares for her to New York City. The catch? The girl, named Aurora, seems to have powers of some sort. So, right off the bat it’s Children of Men mixed with Firefly/Serenity.

Problems arise almost immediately, not least of which is the acting. Vin Diesel has starred in a grand total of two good films, one of which he played little more than a bit character in. He’s one of the worst actors to ever stubbornly cling to the A-list, and his moronic droning leads me to believe a large object fell on his head just before the director yelled “action”. Mélanie Thierry portrays Aurora as a mix between the insane psychic River Tam from Firefly and the shrill, whiny Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only without any of the traits that made those characters interesting. Michelle Yeoh is the only one who puts in a decent performance, but her part is so ridiculous it hardly matters. For God’s sake, she’s a peaceful nun, but all of a sudden starts performing martial arts, presumably because the writers got sick of only ripping off science fiction and just happened to be watching Bulletproof Monk.

The greatest tragedy, though, is the film’s haphazard plagiarism of better movies. The near-magical plastic surgery calls to mind Terry Gilliam’s twisted masterpiece Brazil, which presaged the botox craze by decades, while the ability to instantly track anyone in the world is a staple of cyberpunk, with The Matrix and V For Vendetta in particular pushing the Big Brother tone to the max. Russia and Kazakhstan are depicted as crumbling ruins full of refugee camps, with only the odd placing of technological wonders to suggest that this is the future. Then the gang gets to New York, and suddenly it’s the ad-soaked color explosion of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.

Look, I like Children of Men and Blade Runner too, but you can’t just combine them for the hell of it. They each represent an extreme of futuristic setting; one shows the gradual self-destruction of humanity as all the flashy gizmos prove unable to keep the species going while the other is itself a flashy gizmo. Are the writers seriously suggesting that, in the future, the rest of the world will be a squalid, backwards concentration camp while Americans will still live in booming metropolises? And we wonder why other countries hate us.

If there is a ray of sunshine in all this, it’s that the film will only waste 90 minutes of your life. The dialogue is a constant series of non-sequiturs that confuse and enrage when they should provide exposition. The acting, even from French über-actor Gérard Depardieu, is phoned-in, to the point that everyone sinks to Vin Diesel’s level. Director Mathieu Kassovitz cannot shoot action at all; some scenes look like the man dropped the camera and chased after it like a charmingly inept footballer. Kassovitz gained recognition for disowning this cut of the film, though I cannot imagine any version of this movie being great or even enjoyable.

If you like science fiction but have never seen a film, enjoy action shots where everybody looks the same and the camera jolts as if the director just got hit with a cattle prod, and don’t mind creepy sexual tension with what I assume is a minor, then you may be able to glean some entertainment from this film. Otherwise, stick to the films that this movie copied.

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