Babylon A.D. (film, 2009)


A review of the DVD release, from Death Ray 17.

FILM: TWO STARS

DVD extras: FOUR STARS

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Writer: Eric Besnard, Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Sima, Maurice G. Dantec (novel)

Starring: Vind Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Melanie Thierry, Charlotte Rampling, Gerard Depardieu

Bred from Children of Men, The Pacifier, Pitch Black and a complex French novel, this fat turkey is out just in time for Christmas!

Vin Diesel finds himself minding the baby once again in this adaptation of French novel Babylon Babies. The book is a brain exerciser of no small repute. It includes vivid world building based on canny extrapolations of economics, plus the inevitable angst-slurry of Frenchie philosophising, in this case of a Nietchzean bent, with a little bit of millenarianism thrown in. The book is a dense, rewarding affair. This film is just dense, and not in the same way.

With visions of global collapse and themes of saviour children, Babylon A.D. has much in common with Children of Men, though the stories present very different kinds of redemption. Comparions, however, are inevitable, and Babylon is going to come off worse. Visually and narratively, Children of Men is spare and pure. Babylon A.D., by contrast, is trite and confusing. Mathieu Kassovitz tries to cram too much of the surface of the book into filmic form, without attacking its depths. Then 20th Century Fox tried, by pressure (allegedly) and then heavy-handed use of the pruning shears (all too apparently) to squeeze it into the clothes of your average action movie.

Kassovitz pretty much disowned the picture soon after it was finished, lamenting Fox’s meddlesome ways. Fox currently has a bad rep of not leaving well alone, but you only have to watch the extended version of the film to see that they were not wrong in panicking when they saw it. Babylon A.D. is up itself in a very French way, and no mistake. Awful dialogue dribbles out of a script that is as shallow as a puddle. It’s a fragile confection of barely clever philosophy propped up by outlandishly stupid SF concepts. French and Japanese SF have the same bad habits, asking us to swallow nonsensical ideas (here that a Scientology-like Church is trying to genetically engineer the messiah via AI embryo implantation) presented in indigestible chunks of exposition. A huge part of the story is delivered by a cyborg who has pretended to be dead for years, and whose resurrection lasts only as long as the plot requires.

To be fair to the source material, the backdrop is the most convincing part of the exercise. It is the film that is at fault, its real awkwardness lies not in that it tackles Dantec’s post-human future, but that it tackles it badly, poorly juxtaposing action and thought. Someone was trying to make a philosophical movie here, you suspect Fox wanted an extreme sports DVD.

Babylon A.D. looks slick, its visions of New York and the failing Russia are believable. In other places, wacky French styling gets out of hand, with bikers that look like ’50s mods crossed with hood ornaments, or Gerard Depradieu’s cartoonish (and dubbed) Russian mobster. I actually like wacky French styling, but the world of Babylon is not a whole-cloth one like that in The Fifth Element. As it is, in effect, a French film, we inevitably get parcour too.

There are memorable scenes, refugees desperately attempting to scramble aboard a decrepit Russian submarine being one, but much of the action is as nonsensical as the plot (you simply cannot outfight jet-powered robot drone planes on a snowmobile, no matter how cool it looks), broken up with awkward character moments between gravelly Diesel and Melanie Thierry.

US and French sensibilities separate like the ingredients of badly made salad dressing, but it needn’t have been a total loss. There’s an animated prologue in the extras. If this bit of story had been included in the film it would have made much more sense. Babylon A.D. suffers for many reasons, but the most pronounced is its determination to keep what it is actually about a secret to the end, expending much energy to do so. More involved films can support such subterfuge, but this is a schoolboy error in a film like Babylon A.D., which actually doesn’t have much to say.

DVD Extras: A fair batch, including the even worse theatrical cut of the film, a chase scene that did not make it into the film, and several documentaries – an interview with book author Maurice Dantec; segments on the snowmobile chase, stunt work, and the excised chase. Of these the interview with Dantec is the most interesting, as it gives you an insight into what he was trying to write and, by extension, what the film could have been. There’s also the animated prologue and photo gallery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no director’s commentary.

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