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Tonight's Feature Presentation

BABYLON A.D. (2008)

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

Written By: Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Simas, Eric Besnard Directed By: Mathieu Kassovitz

The Short Version

The more Babylon AD explains itself, the less sense it makes.

Until the end, the overall production values are excellent.

The entire cast seems to be phoning this in.

The movie’s own director doesn’t like it.

The ending is horrible.  Either one of them.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

DEHYDRATED.

Y’know that nondescript pouch of powdered cheese that comes in the macaroni and cheese box, the kind that’s been ground up and processed to hell and back so who knows what it really used to be?  That stuff.  And you’re not allowed to add water or milk, either, to figure out how it’s really supposed to taste.  You must take it down as is.  Ew.


Pairs Well With...

VODKA.

Cheapest stuff you can find.  Put it in a brown bag, and it could be a prop anywhere in the first two thirds of the movie.  Drink enough, and maybe Babylon AD might even start making some sense.  One can hope.

“We were one step away from becoming a bona fide religion!”


You know a movie’s in trouble when the best thing you can say about it is that the production value is excellent until the last five minutes.

Not that this is a backhanded or even an insincere compliment, mind.  In that one spiffy little term, I just told you that the sets look great, the lighting’s excellent, and the sound is first rate.  Props also for the costumes and visual effects.  These are all very important elements to any film, and lots of professionals work very hard to get them right, and that last five minutes noted by the caveat is not these professionals’ fault.  So bravo, people.  And I do mean that sincerely.  More on those folks in a bit.

Now what you may have also picked up during the course of that compliment is that there’s no mention of things like acting, screenplay, or direction, the items that most people mention right away, usually to the exclusion of all else.

Welcome to the mess that is Babylon AD.

I want to like this movie.  I really do.  It’s the same desire I had when I saw it in a theatre, and when I picked up the blu ray on the cheap.  Even now as I’m about to spend almost nineteen hundred more words shredding it, I still want to like Babylon AD.  Apparently, this puts me in the minority, even including the major players behind getting the movie made in the first place.  For as it turns out, Babylon AD is the bastard child of a war of creative differences.

To get the ball rolling, Babylon AD is based on the novel “Babylon Babies” by Maurice G Dantec (a Frenchman who was a punk rocker in a former life).  Dantec’s novel takes on many different themes,  from genetic engineering to animal cloning to the aftermath of wars in Central and Eastern Europe.  There are also some cyborgs, and the third act takes place in Quebec.  In short, it gets complicated.  It should also go without saying that the movie bears only peripheral resemblance to the book, and most people who’ve actually read the book, as so often happens in these cases, hate the movie.  It should also go without saying that the filmmakers decided to move the third act from Quebec to New York, aka The Single Most Overfilmed City On The Planet.  And the Israeli shoot-em-up commando and Irish militant who accompany Our Hero?  They’ve been replaced by a single quiet Asian nun who hates guns but knows kung fu.

So, Strike One, and some foul balls to go with.  (I know a foul counts as a second strike in real baseball; just go with me here.)

That said, though, one tends to expect a movie to barely resemble the book; that’s pretty well par for the course.  The ideas presented by the Babylon AD screenplay are indeed interesting.  Organized religion owns up to itself and goes corporate.  The nun may be a replacement character, but in this world, she makes sense.  Indeed, the entire first act of the movie and most parts of the second make complete, coherent sense.

So why then, did Babylon AD receive next to no lead-up publicity, and why were critics not allowed to peek at it in advance of its release?

Famously, when Orson Welles was asked the secret of being a great director, he replied, “Hire good actors.”  What this is supposed to mean (despite Welles’ own controlling reputation at times) is that one hires qualified professionals and lets them do their jobs.  Generally speaking, the same theory trickles up: production companies hire qualified directors and let them have at it.  If they don’t like what they see in the early stages, they fire the originally selected director and replace him or her with another qualified professional.

That’s not how things worked with Babylon AD.

In a feud that became public enough to get more press in some circles than the movie itself, Director Mathieu Kassovitz and Fox (the studio behind the production) had themselves a little cage match from Day One.  Kassovitz wanted to make one movie, and the folks at Fox another.  Instead of having the class to fire Kassovitz and get a Director willing to play ball, Fox simply sent some goons and corporate types down to the set to micromanage Kassovitz, who in turn didn’t have the dignity to get up from his folding chair and quit.  "I'm very unhappy with the film," Kassovitz told amcfilmcritic.com in an interview just before Babylon AD hit theatres. "I never had a chance to do one scene the way it was written or the way I wanted it to be. The script wasn't respected. Bad producers, bad partners, it was a terrible experience."

He goes on to bemoan the trade-offs made from the film’s philosophical premises in favor of action sequences that he describes as being “a bad episode of ‘24’.”  This seems a bit much – while it may not be to that depths Kassovitz claims to have been reaching for, Babylon AD does retain a philosophical air, and save for the last five minutes, the movie doesn’t quite hit bad television proportions – and yet, the complaints aren’t without merit, either.  One can’t help but feel even while things are going okay that Babylon AD has been watered down.  Even the “Unrated” cut released for the home market feels like it carries a PG-13 rating that this story just can’t properly survive under.  Speaking thereof, don’t pick up said “Unrated” cut thinking you’re going to get the more complete story; the changes are short and scant, and depending on who you ask, there are still anywhere from 15 to 70 minutes of footage missing, courtesy of severe meddling from the suits at Fox.  Would the movie have been better with this lost material?  I strongly doubt that it could have ended up worse.

I’ve never understood studio interference; it always, always, always turns out badly.  The odds invariably favor not second guessing the guy you already hired and just letting him roll with his vision; there, at least, one has a chance of success instead of a guaranteed failure.

So, Strike Two, and lots more foul balls.

Not that Mathieu Kassovitz gets a free pass, mind.  He kept his name on it (it still vexes me that he didn’t go the Alan Smithee route and take his name off the credits if things were truly as bad as he says), and he still sat in the chair from start to finish.  As such, he must bear some responsibility, if for nothing else than for allowing his cast to phone in their roles.  Granted, one can imagine that the interference described by Kassovitz must have created an extremely tense atmosphere on the set, and that can’t have made coming to work any fun.  I think we’ve all had jobs like that at some time or another.  Actors, though, are paid specifically to pretend.  Vin Diesel tends to play things cool and quiet in any role during those times that the house isn’t on fire, but in every scene here, he looks like he’s wondering when the bank’s going to close.  Michelle Yeoh, who really isn’t given much opportunity outside of one highly confused scene to show off her physical talents, looks perpetually ready for a nap.  Melanie Thierry (who you won’t believe is 25/26 at the time of filming; there’s a reason she can get away with playing a mid-teenager) does break the soporific mold on occasion, but when she does, she goes way over the top, which I suspect may be the Director’s fault.

It pains me to say that the best performance may be in the important but overall bit role of a Russian mobster played by Gerard Depardieu, for whom the phrase “gone to seed” seems a complete understatement.

So, more fouls behind the plate.

But let’s pause for a moment to have a look around the stadium and check out those production values I mentioned up top.

I strongly suspect that this is why even now I still want to like Babylon AD, because visually and aurally, this is one of the best-realized future Earths of the past ten years.  (Still doesn’t reach the level of Blade Runner from a quarter century before, but it definitely wants to play.)  Babylon AD plays the full progression, starting with a vision of Central/Eastern Europe that’s disturbingly familiar for anyone who’s actually paid attention to that part of the world, playable as being anywhere from five minutes to five decades on.  Progress across the continent to the Central and Eastern parts of the former Soviet Union, and things ramp up to a wonderfully dirty dystopia that feels right at home for the mid echelon of a post industrial backwater. Low tech and high tech clash; basic old world vice meets new world flash.  Every element from the set design to the lighting to the sound is spot on; it looks and sounds so good you can easily forget that the cast seems like they couldn’t give a shit less.  Take a break for a still beautifully executed sprint across the Arctic, and then you end up in a very, very well-rendered High-Gloss New York of the Future.  Sure, you’ve seen it done before, but the people behind the scenes here do a bang-up job of it and make this vision their own.  You see it, you hear it, you feel it.  The world of Babylon AD it a cast of characters unto itself, and that cast outshines the human cast far and away.

It also, alas, outshines the screenplay.  Or what was done to the screenplay.  After all the feuding and accusations, who knows what it was really supposed to be like?

After an interesting enough start, it takes a really long time to get to the actual central premise of Babylon AD.  (This is not the same as the story.  The premise is the reason for the story.)  You essentially spend the first half to two thirds of the movie looking at the pretty dystopia and hoping you’ll eventually be thrown a bone.  Perhaps you might regret this, because the more the movie explains itself, the less sense it makes.  Sharks are jumped, logic is leaped, and cohesiveness runs away screaming.  Sure, the premise can be understood as an abstract concept, but force fed into this movie, it needs an iron lung, and the bastard children that pop up around it are just too much.  When the Convenient Character Who Knows It All finally explains it all, it’s very easy to facepalm and ask oneself, “I’ve been watching all this time for that?”

And the bad news is… no, you haven’t.  You’ve been watching all this time for the scene after that.

Babylon AD has to have one of the most disappointing endings ever.  It doesn’t matter which version you pick, either.  (There are at least two of them.)  In either case, the story falls apart and fails; indeed, it completely forgets several elements which were until just a few moments earlier seemingly quite important.  Also in either case, you know all of those production values I mentioned before?  The things that kept Babylon AD watchable while everything else was just kind of ‘there’ or not making sense?  Yeah, those are gone for the last five minutes, which look and feel like they were filmed during a single afternoon as an afterthought on the back 40 of a crew member’s farm country home.

Maybe it was scripted this way all along.  Maybe this was the Director’s way of saying “screw it.”  Maybe this was the final nail driven into the coffin by the suits at Fox.  After all the conflict that came before, who can say?  What can be said, though, is that the ending, in plainest terms, sucks.

Strike Three.  This one’s outta here.

And yet…

Babylon AD is already on the discount circuit, to the point where even the blu ray is easy to find for less than the cost of a single person’s McLunch.  For that price, if you’re into oh-shit-there-goes-the-planet dystopian futures, despite all of its flaws and truly awful ending, Babylon AD is still worth a peek, if only to see and hear the world that the folks whose names you rarely pay attention to in the credits have constructed.  If nothing else, it’s something to distract yourself with if you’re sick on the couch.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bottom line, we’ll never know if an unfettered with Babylon AD would have been a great movie or not, but the version that eventually got released definitely isn’t.

Doom Cheez Cinema is now Cinema on the Rocks. Thank you for your support!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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