Thursday, March 24, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Babylon A.D. (2008)

Babylon A.D. (2008), based on a cyberpunk novel by Maurice Dantec, is one of those sci-fi movies that you stick with -- even though you have reservations -- in hopes that all the intriguing elements are going to somehow come together in the end.

Alas, in this case, the film's admittedly interesting ingredients don't ever truly cohere. As a result, you might leave a screening feeling disappointed, sensing some missed opportunities. 

Or to put it another way, Babylon A.D. is a fascinating story only half-told; one inadequately rendered in any significant human dimension.

Babylon A.D. is set in a near future world of dystopian proportions, and stars Vin Diesel as a world-weary mercenary named Toorop.  He's recruited by another mercenary, Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu) to smuggle a Noelite nun, Sister Rebekha (Michelle Yeoh) and an unusually empathetic young woman, Aurora (Melanie Theirry) across East Europe and into New York City. 

He's got six days to do it.

Toorop is a guy who doesn't ask many questions, especially when he is a promised a passport back into his beloved homeland, the United States, as reward for the successful delivery of Aurora to the CEO of the Church of Neolites (Charlotte Rampling). 

But along the  action-packed cross-continental journey (by train, by sub, by jet-ski, and by plane), the smuggler sees things that make him wonder about Aurora's true nature.  She has the power to powerfully empathize with other life, including cloned animals, and boasts an instinct for both healing and understanding the wounded.

Is Aurora carrying a virus that could wipe out an entire metropolis?  Or is she actually the next step in human evolution?  In short, Toorop isn't certain if Aurora is savior or destroyer of man.  In the end, he finally gets his answer, thanks to a clandestine meeting with Aurora's "father."

Babylon A.D. follows the cyberpunk playbook pretty faithfully.  The film depicts a future society, post-2017, of "mega corporations."  Here, even Organized Religion is Big Business, and the Noelite leaders regularly check to see if their stock options are "sky high" or falling. 

More than that, these religious business-people believe that their professional trade is "miracles" and that people such as Aurora can be trademarked.    Religion in this world is about selling people something they desperately want, spirituality, and about getting rich.

The impressive look of New York City -- a step below Blade Runner (1982) perhaps -- affirms the importance of corporations in this near future milieu.  Skyscraper exteriors are multi-story advertisements and commercials.  Corporate logos appear on every surface imaginable, even on the sides of planes and city taxis.  Clearly, big business is the way of the future, if we are to believe Babylon A.D.'s vision.

But Babylon A.D. is also a cyberpunk vision because it ponders a dystopian future in which high technology does not raise all ships, so-to-speak.  The early portions of the film highlight life outside of the rich United States, in Serbia and Russia, respectively, and these are places of degrading infrastructure, miserable housing, failed technology, and populaces living in abject poverty.  The human beings dwelling in these countries seem to live in spaces that aren't really designed (or safe) for people. 

In accordance with this idea, twice in the film Toorop is forced to contend with items that don't work properly: a hand-gun and lighter, in particular.  The overall impression is thus of a used-up world, squeezing the last drops of viability out of late twentieth-century technology and wealth.

But it is the character of Aurora who points the film most clearly in the direction of cyberpunk literature.  She is the daughter of both biology and technology, anticipating a new epoch in which man and machine are mated.  Some futurists refer to this new age as "Singularity," and the movie gets much mileage out of the idea that machines are now developing faster than the human race is.  Aurora, we soon learn, is pregnant: a "vessel" for the next step in our very evolution.

Cyberpunk has much in common with film noir, too, so you won't be surprised to learn that the film opens with a laconic voice-over narration from Diesel (as Toorop), debating the future.  "Save the planet?  What for?"  He asks, sounding a lot like Riddick.  

Toorop then contrasts that line of dialogue with his own example of "bumper sticker philosophy" as he calls it: "Life's a bitch and then you die."  

Toorop himself is pretty clearly a noir hero: an outsider living on the margins of society, trying to stay uninvolved and yet secretly hoping for a reason to become involved again; to reignite his connection to the human race.  He finds that connection, surprisingly, in a revival of his spirituality.  Certainly, Babylon A.D. speaks a lot in the language of faith: Aurora's journey across the globe takes six days, there's a human populace "starving for miracles" and, yes, there's also the idea of immaculate conception.

As I wrote above, all of these elements are authentically intriguing and worth noting. Yet Matthew Kassovitz's film remains incoherent; as though it has been edited with a blunt hatchet.  We literally leap from set-piece to set-piece without rhyme or reason.  We don't always understand, exactly, where the characters are and what they're doing in any particular place.   For instance, Toorop, Rebekha and Aurora find themselves running on a gigantic ice field with other Russian refugees at the start of one scene, and the moment leads to a bloodbath at a parked submarine.  Yet we don't know how anyone got there or what's going on.  Instead, the scene plays as if someone blew a whistle, and all the actors started simultaneously running a race.

In truth, the film doesn't always seem certain which forces are pursuing Aurora, and for what reason.  Several apparent thugs follow Toorop through a colorful, atmospheric bazaar and ensuing terrorist attack at a train station, and thus seem to be our bad guys.  They are involved in an extensive fight sequence, and yet they have no reason to approach Toorop with hostility given what we later in the film learn about their allegiances.

And the action scenes -- such as a drone attack on two jet-skis -- feature impressive special effects but not the right tone.  They play as unrealistically heroic or comic-bookish in what is otherwise supposed to be a grim, realistic world.  

But the most significant problem is that Babylon A.D. fails on a human, emotional level.  The story of Aurora -- as a messiah and Mary Figure -- is one that should be beautiful and inspiring, yet it isn't.  Aurora is too remote a figure to sympathize with, and we don't understand her motives for most of  the adventure. 

Toorop's final revelation (about saving the planet again, one life at a time) feels more than a little facile and easy because the audience never truly feels or experiences the connection between this mercenary and Aurora.  We know it's there and we want to feel it, but the movie lurches mechanically from plot point to plot point instead of adequately developing the characters' relationships. 

Babylon A.D. is supposed to be a story about the dawn of a great new age for the human race, and the rebirth of one man's faith, but the film's closing line, "Ain't that a bitch?" hardly feels like an appropriate or worthy apotheosis given the circumstances. 

Because this cyberpunk film features a future world that already seems very familiar to us (from the likes of Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic, for instance), the only way Babylon A.D. could have differentiated itself  from the cyberpunk pack would have been in the handling of the unconventional relationship between Toorop and Aurora.  This is where the filmmakers should have focused; on the emotional content of Aurora's journey; not the spectacle and danger of the actual trip.

So instead of being a movie about the wondrous joining of man to machine, Babylon A.D. feels like a movie made by a machine instead; one programmed to know and regurgitate every action cliche in the book. 

Ain't that a bitch?


  1. Gosh. At the time of it's release there was hardly a good reason to see this film.

    I had heard so many negatives about it.

    LEt's just say, you've given me one more reason never to see it.

    But, your voice on the subject is certainly one of the few that matters most to me as far as assessing the quality of a film.

    I was pleased to see you cover it. I had hoped your review and summation might have had a different outcome than many things I had heard.

    Clearly you offer alot of great examples and quality comparisons to gage the material. It looks like the recommendation, albeit fully analyzed, falls into the Don't see department.

    At the very least it was the nail in the coffin for me. Thanks for the impartial review as always JOhn.


  2. By the way John, I actually have his earlier film Crimson Rivers on DVD. It starred Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel and is quite good.

  3. JKM, we are in total agreement about this film. I liked the look of it but felt that the script was weak and downright pedestrian. I like that Vin Diesel was trying a little something different here but it did feel like he was recycling his PITCH BLACK character. At least, it wasn't another FAST & FURIOUS film! What happened to this guy's career? He started off so promisingly and then made a few bad career choices and has squandered all the good will he garnered early on. I'd love to see what Luc Besson or any of his stable of directors could do with him in the right pulpy action film a la TAKEN or DISTRICT B13. It's a shame that Walter Hill's output has slowed down to next to nothing. I could see Diesel in one of his films.

  4. Hello, my friends,

    SFF: I really wanted to like and get on board with this movie. I remembered the negative reviews and wanted this to be one of those times when I would see "something" in the movie that others had missed. But it didn't happen. Babylon AD just never really comes together; just never leaves you with the emotional wallop it should. I always go into a movie wanting to like it, so I was disappointed here, even with expectations in check.

    J.D. - Yep, total agreement! I couldn't agree with you more about the script: pedestrian. Weak soup. I am a big admirer of Vin Diesel (I love the Riddick films...) and I was hoping to see him do something more than recycle his popular hero in Babylon AD. Sorely disappointed in the whole affair, despite -- like you -- appreciating the "look" of the production in terms of New York City, especially.

    Great comments!


  5. John, I really liked your complete summary of the film Babylon A.D.; including your reasoning for why the various intriguing elements did not add up to a coherent film. Not having read the novel “Babylon Babies” by Maurice Dantec that Babylon A.D. is based on, it is impossible to give entire blame to the film’s inconsistent story elements to the director/screenwriter Mathieu Kassovitz. It is quite possible that the novel itself did not present its diverse elements in a logical manner either.

    What bothers me about the film the most is that that Aurora is carrying a child that will be “the next step in human evolution”, but we’re never given a clear idea as to how this hybrid of A.I. and human intelligence was achieved, or what will be done with this being when he/she is born. I also hate it when religion is dragged into a science fiction premise; as if the only way non-genre fans are going to understand metaphysical concepts is by feeding it to us with a religious spoon. Oh course, the film (and I’m assuming the book as well) are trying to say that the unwashed masses are being beguiled by religion in order to keep world order.

    I’ve read many cyberpunk novels over the years by their primary torchbearers: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker and John Shirley. Most cyberpunk is associated by the virtual reality cybernetic technology that Gibson wrote about in Neuromancer, but it also includes any type of advanced cybernetic technology. I have read a few books that dealt with bio-cybernetics; most notably Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, but I have never read anything that tries to directly combine machine and human intelligence in such a literal manner as implied in Babylon A.D.! It just strikes me as a ludicrous idea to begin with, so that when the “big reveal” comes at the end of the film I felt extremely let down.

    About the only thing that I disagree with you about Babylon A.D is when you state “the filmmakers should have focused; on the emotional content of Aurora's journey; not the spectacle and danger of the actual trip.” I actually preferred the action elements to the intellectual elements of the film. Not that the action sequences were spectacular, but they were at least visually compelling. The mistake that the filmmakers made was trying to incorporate a philosophical evolutional drama into a dystopian futuristic film noir action film. Oil and water just don’t mix. Yes, I do understand that Blade Runner attempted just this, but it works primarily as a futurist police procedural and doesn’t spend more than a perfunctory amount of time on the other elements. Plus, I have read “Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep” and I suspect Philip K. Dick might have been a better writer than Maurice Dantec.

    On a side note: I hate the whole concept of “Singularity” as a way of achieving human intelligence immortality. This is a scientist’s idea of nirvana and my idea of hell. I may not be an overly religious man, but I’ll take my chances with the afterlife if Singularity is my only option.

  6. Hi Doc,

    Thank you for writing such a great comment about Babylon AD. Everything you say is pretty much on the money, I'd say.

    First, there is almost no significant detail about who or what Aurora really is; how she is this A.I./human hybrid. You're right about that. Is she an android like Data? Or what? how was she "produced" in this manner?

    Secondly, I can't blame you for preferring the action in the film to the shallow depiction of the film's sci-fi concept (the coming age of Singularity).

    I guess what I'm indicating in my review is that had the central concept (about human evolution with machines...) been fortified to be about Aurora's dawning emotional knowledge of who and what (and why) she is, the film would have been more rewarding.

    I agree with you that the action is visually compelling, but I found it tonally off from the film's theme.

    I am wary of Singularity too. I fear my own death and the death of my loved ones, and Singularity promises immortality (st least for some...), so I'm curious about what shape such eternal life would take, but also nervous about it. A great film could be made about that concept, but Babylon AD isn't it, by a long shot.

    Thank you again for such a thoughtful and worthwhile comment!