Director Mathieu Kassovitz made a spectacle last summer when he loudly and repeatedly distanced himself from his own "Babylon A.D.," a moody sci-fi actioner he claimed was sabotaged from start to finish by meddling studio executives who wouldn't let him shoot what he wanted, then wouldn't let him edit what he had to shoot.
The "Raw and Uncut" version that arrives on DVD is something an improvement over the nearly incomprehensible edit originally released in theaters by Fox. And oh, what a mess that was: Fox trimmed about fifteen minutes from the film, partially to clumsily speed up the goings-on, partially to avoid an R rating Stateside; they wound up taking plot and clarity with it. Worse, Fox then added a car chase at the end of the picture, assuming audiences would rather see unintelligible action than a decent story.
What Fox delivers on disc is the "Studio Canal version," named after the European distributor which handled a director-approved 101 minute edit. (The existence of a long-rumored three-hour director's cut seems to have been debunked by Kassovitz himself, who's said the Studio Canal version is more in line with his original run time.) But longer doesn't quite equal better. Even with Kassovitz's preferred pacing and some expanded exposition, the whole thing still falls apart in its second half, which remains rushed and cluttered, a collapse of ideas that spring up at random but are barley worth the effort anyway.
For all this mess, however, "Babylon A.D." is always fascinating. There are moments here that are spectacular, and there are many more that are spectacular failures. You can always see good ideas peeking out from the corners, and you wonder why Kassovitz repeatedly fails to materialize such ideas, and then you wonder why you're suddenly watching a stupid snowmobile chase. Fascinating!
Vin Diesel stars as Toorop, a bitter, lonely mercenary living in the vaguely post-apocalyptic New Serbia. The dialogue is ridiculous (Toorop informs a rival that the two essentials in their line of work are "your balls and your word") but the mood is spot-on, as the art designers effectively create a dreary mud puddle of a city, where technology and poverty collide, where you skin your own dinner - in this case, a roadkill rabbit bought from a dirty old hag on the corner. (A later, brief shot of a dog's corpse hung out to dry, perhaps for dinner, does more to establish a bleak hellscape than any overwrought action scene or awkwardly written exposition.)
Toorop is coerced into his next job: escort Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), a mysterious young woman, to America. Trouble follows them as they trek across Asia, although it's never really clear who's providing the trouble, or why. Enjoy these scenes, however, as once intentions are revealed, you'll wish you never knew.
The set pieces here range from the hauntingly exciting (a mob of refugees race to catch a submarine to Alaska, and the energy of the action is muted by a somber hopelessness) to the laughably dim-witted (Aurora somehow wanders into the middle of what appears to be an ultimate fighting cage match, and only Toorop can rescue her!). Kassovitz sleepwalks his way through the action, as does the cast (which also includes Michelle Yeoh as the nun who cares for Aurora - a character with endless possibilities, none of them studied here). They're instead more into the tone of the piece, the dank, moody future and Toorop's thuggish place in it; thanks to Diesel playing up his mumbling-dope persona, there's some nice interplay here reminiscent of the brutish cowboy, rough and ungentlemanly but honorable, protecting the delicate damsel, becoming humanized by her.
But then comes New York, and a grand pile of revelations that fail to live up to, well, anything. The script (from Kassovitz and Eric Besnard, adapting Maurice G. Dantec's novel "Babylon Babies"), perhaps suddenly realizing it needs to clarify things before the credits roll, starts tossing in arbitrary characters and backstories. Charlotte Rampling pops up as the head of a cult. Lambert Wilson stops by to bring Toorop back from the dead (don't ask) and explain the plot. Entire ideas fly at us half-baked, stuff about genetic engineering and politics and religion and oh, how nothing here works at all.
All of this suggests that a longer cut of the film might make it even worse. Kassovitz and company work best with undefined ideas and unclear motivations; an extra ten, or fifteen, or seventy minutes of exposition and clarity would only undermine things even more than they do already.
"Babylon A.D." arrives on DVD in both one- and two-disc releases. Reviewed here is the one-disc version.
Note: As usual, Fox has sent in a watermarked DVD-R screening copy for review, and not the final shelf product. As such, there are parts of the disc we can't properly review until a complete retail version arrives.
Video & Audio
As mentioned, there's no comment on the video quality, since our version was watermarked and compressed. The film will be presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This review will be updated if a final shelf version arrives.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is vibrant, playing up the action aspects of the feature. Bass is deep without overwhelming the dialogue, and the surround speakers are used to great effect. A lesser French stereo dub is included, as are optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
"Babylon Babies" (11:04; 1.78:1 anamorphic) features an interview with Maurice G. Dantec, who discusses his novel and its translation here.
"Arctic Escape" (11:40) has stunt coordination Bob Brown discussing the making of the snowmobile chase. A revealing hint to the movie's evolution is found here; the chase was originally a minor scene, only to snowball (no pun intended) to over-the-top proportions for no real reason.
"Fit for the Screen" (7:03) details the movie's fight scenes, notably the cage match sequence.
"Flight of the Hummers" (7:59) explains the car chase scene and how Fox shoehorned it into the picture (and how it just taken back out).
The clumsily titled "Prequel to Babylon A.D.: The Genesis of Aurora" (5:01) is a "digital graphic novel" (read: limited animation) that offers a backstory to the film, with more about Lambert Wilson's scientist character. It's as sloppy as the movie it's supposed to support.
"Babylon A.D. Commercials" is a collection of fake ads (2:46 total) that play in the background throughout the film. Looks like more work went into these than the story itself.
The previously mentioned deleted car chase (2:26) is included in its entirety. It adds nothing, and one can see why Kassovitz didn't want it.
A large collection of production and publicity photos can be found in the Still Galleries.
Unrelated to all of this is a behind-the-scenes "First Look" at the direct-to-video sequel "Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia" (3:00; 1.78:1 anamorphic), which is - surprise! - a better movie than "Babylon A.D." This featurette, ported directly from the "Behind Enemy Lines" DVD, focuses on the effects work put into the film's explosions and gunplay.
A batch of trailers for other Fox/MGM titles rounds out the set; a separate batch plays as the disc loads.
Some said it was a total disaster. Others said a longer cut would fix everything. Neither of these turned out to be true. If they're willing to dig past the story's many failures, fans of dystopian sci-fi might find enough of interest here that they should Rent It.