By every financial estimation, Babylon A.D. was a box office bomb, failing to make back its modest budget (a gross of $22 million in America against an estimated $60 million budget) and wounded by stories of director Mathieu Kassovitz's feuding with 20th Century Fox over final cut. For some, the whiff of failure is enough to keep them away from what is, admittedly, a deeply flawed film, but one that's still worth attention, particularly from those who like their sci-fi on the grim, fatalistic side.
Unfolding like a hybrid of The Fifth Element and Children of Men dosed with a liberal helping of Blade Runner, Babylon A.D. (adapted from Maurice G. Dantec's novel "Babylon Babies") is a fast-moving piece of allegorical science fiction that suffers from a paradox of too much exposition and too little story. The thin plot -- a menacing religion that will stop at nothing to lay hands on a mysterious young woman, whose safety is in the hands of a ruthless mercenary -- is weighed down with considerable baggage, forced to incorporate jabs at violent ideologies, the decay of society and the idea of genetic experimentation, while trying to be an explosively entertaining multiplex popcorn flick.
Vin Diesel stars as the no-nonsense Toorop, a grungy mercenary eking out a living in run-down central Europe; this character is the nth variation on the stoic, minimalist role that made Diesel famous in Pitch Black a decade ago. Drafted to help see the timid, sheltered Aurora (Melanie Thierry) safely to America, with assistance from her caretaker Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), Toorop embarks on a life-changing journey fraught with peril. He comes face-to-face with a secret that has the potential to alter the lives of everyone on earth, but only if he can protect the source.
Once the film gets going, it's not too difficult to see where it will end up -- it's simply a matter of making through the action sequences and interminable dialogues between frantic actors to get to the pay-off. Is it worth it? Yes and no. Diesel acquits himself well, while Yeoh is wasted (as is Lambert Wilson, in what amounts to a glorified cameo) and Thierry is strangely mis-cast, vacillating between child-like awe and over-confident vamp.
The kinetic action set pieces are handsomely mounted and Diesel has no problems with the more physical aspects of the role -- it's when emoting comes into play that he stumbles. After its first hour, which is mostly engaging, Babylon A.D. just slowly falls apart, withering away to its foregone conclusion. The Internet Movie Database lists no fewer than three different run times for Kassovitz's film, ranging from 90 to 161 minutes. (This "raw and uncut" version runs 101 minutes.) Hard to say whether more footage would benefit the story, which lacks a clear back story; simply dropping the audience in media res is fine, but when the film is over, you don't feel the weight of events that Kassovitz so clearly intends.
Babylon A.D. is a hard film to like, let alone love. It becomes tangled up in its ambitions, undone by studio interference or a director overcome by the story he wants to tell -- who knows for certain where it fell apart. Yet, there are moments worth seeking out -- the thrilling chase across Canadian tundra; Diesel's fight with a vicious brawler -- to merit at least giving the film a chance. Perhaps Kassovitz's original, 161-minute cut will surface someday and then, it can be considered anew.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Babylon A.D. may have had problems behind the scenes, but up on the screen, it looks damn near perfect, with rich, saturated colors, inky blacks and razor-sharp detail. The gritty, detailed and futuristic set design and Thierry Arbogast's fluid cinematography look positively amazing. A fantastic-looking disc, befitting a recently filmed production.
There are plenty of opportunities for home theater systems to shine during Babylon A.D., thanks to its immersive, detailed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. From action sequences to quiet passages of dialogue, every moment of the film is crisp, clean and free from audible defect. A great companion to the sharp-looking transfer. An optional French Dolby 2.0 track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Unsurprisingly, director Kassovitz is MIA from any and all supplements (so too is the cast, for that matter). What's left skews heavily towards stunts, which is interesting, but tends to ignore the big themes the film engages. The "raw and uncut" version is housed in a two-disc set. Aside from the film, the first disc houses most of the bonus features. The 11 minute, four second featurette "Babylon Babies" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) involves an interview with author Dantec, who discusses his work. The 11 minute, 40 second featurette "Arctic Escape" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) details the stunt work, as do the seven minute, three second "Fit For the Screen" and the seven minute, 59 second "Flight of the Hummers" (both presented in anamorphic widescreen). The five minute "graphic novel" "Prequel to Babylon A.D.: Genesis of Aurora" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) explores Aurora's beginnings; seven "commercials" from the film are included (playable separately or all together for an aggregate of two minutes, 48 seconds; presented in fullscreen) and a two minute, 26 second deleted scene titled "Hummer Sequence" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is on board. Still galleries, a three minute "inside look" at the sure-to-be-crappy Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (c'mon, it stars a WWE wrestler and is directed by Tim Matheson -- yes, that one) and trailers for Stargate: Continuum, The Rocker, Joy Ride 2, The Happening and The X-Files: I Want to Believe complete the first disc. The second disc of this set includes a digital copy of the extended, unrated Babylon A.D..
By every financial estimation, Babylon A.D. was a box office bomb, failing to make back its modest budget and wounded by stories of director Mathieu Kassovitz's feuding with 20th Century Fox over final cut. For some, the whiff of failure is enough to keep them away from what is, admittedly, a deeply flawed film, but one that's still worth attention, particularly from those who like their sci-fi on the grim, fatalistic side. Rent it.