"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."
I remember when Alejandro González Iñárritu's first film, Amores Perros, came out in 2000. At the time, it was hailed as the work of a bright new film star. Personally, I thought it owed a little too much to Pulp Fiction and the disjointed narrative only served to distance me from the characters and their situations. I wasn't terribly impressed.
Then, Iñárritu narrowed the scope of his subject with 21 Grams, a harrowing film highlighted by gripping performances from Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. This time, the trick worked, and I thought 21 Grams was one of the best films of 2003. By focusing on one cohesive story, Iñárritu was able to hit the emotional core of the tale he was trying to tell, and it allowed his fractured narrative to come together and make cohesive sense.
Now, with his latest feature, Babel, Iñárritu widens his scope once again, this time transcending geographical borders and language boundaries. I'm sad to say, the effect is much the same as Amores Perros; while technically proficient, the film just left me cold.
"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."
By extending his reach across characters and continents, Iñárritu effectively dilutes the emotional impact of any one of the stories in question. There are many compelling instances in the film, such as when Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute Japanese girl, attempts to seduce her dentist in an attempt to feel more like a complete person, or when Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist in Morocco, has to get stitches without the aid of any anesthetic. But the constant shifting from story to story robs these scenes of the impact that they could have had otherwise.
Now, I understand part of the point of the film is how we're all connected, but the plain and simple fact is that Iñárritu isn't as good at telling these kinds of stories as he thinks he is. This isn't in any way meant to denigrate him as a director, as he has clear and obvious talent. Nor is the problem solely with the script. The trouble comes from trying to cram too much in, even if the majority of it is good.
In fact, a lot of the storylines are good enough that I would like to see them fleshed out until full films. Chieko's story is especially entertaining, and I'm positive the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett storyline could have been made into a film with the impact of 21 Grams. The other stories, one in Mexico, the other also taking place in Morocco, are less spectacular. The one in Mexico doesn't have much depth (although I have to commend Iñárritu for not shooting Mexico through thick, gritty orange lenses as seems to be the trend these days), and the other story in Morocco is heavy-handed and melodramatic.
The device which connects all the stories, a rifle, also becomes problematic, as the film attempts to merge these disparate stories as the film goes on. What were interesting character studies now become forced into awkward and ill-fitting forms, which serves to again lessen the impact the film was trying to leave on the viewer. The end result is a frustrating mix of frequent brilliance stifled by poor construction.
Babel is meant to be the conclusion to a thematic trilogy that began with Amores Perros, but it's got so much in it that it could have easily been turned in to its own trio of films, similar to Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. Each storyline could have informed and complemented the other two, giving us a deeper understanding of the characters and themes. Instead, what we get is both too little and too much; a film that tries to say a lot but instead tantalizes us with small doses of inspiration.
"Therefore is the name of it called Babel (confusion); because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."
The HD DVD:
Paramount Home Entertainment presents Babel 1.85:1 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer. Out of all of Iñárritu's films, Babel is by far the least grainy, and the picture on the transfer is quite clear. You can make out all sorts of small details, such as grime on people's faces or the dirt under Brad Pitt's fingernails. It doesn't have the shocking brilliance of some HD transfers I've seen (and some of the scenes in Japan could probably have exhibited that sort of quality), but it's still an all-around excellent transfer.
Babel comes complete with English and French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mixes. Seeing as how the film is brand new, the mix is predictably active, and quite effective, especially in the club scenes and during the firefight in Morocco. Dialogue, in any given language, is always clear and easy to understand.
Apparently Iñárritu dislikes extra features, presumably in a Woody Allen-esque desire to let the film speak for itself. So all we get is the theatrical trailer. However, the regular DVD version isn't getting anything more, so it's not like we're being cheated out of anything. Incidentally, the trailer is in 1080p and is far, far grainier than the feature.
Babel is as much of an overreaching achievement as the tower from which it gets its name. It's a serious blend of races, cultures, and attitudes. And like its namesake, it goes too far and ends up imploding in on itself. There's no denying that Iñárritu is a talented director, and that there are many great moments to be found, but the overall effect is less than the sum of its parts. However, the film is good enough to merit at least one viewing, and this is the way to see it, with strong audio and video. Overall, though, the movie won't get much replay, so I suggest you Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.