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Babylon A.D.

Fox // Unrated // January 6, 2009
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted January 6, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Product:

It remains one of 2008's most intriguing cinematic stories. Just before its August release, French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, famous for his breakout drama La Haine, was speaking out to the media about the treatment of his latest film. And he was livid, nay PISSED, at what was happening. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. was about to be unleashed in a version he was not happy with. Apparently, Fox was so despondent over the final cut, they decimated his sci-fi allegory, undermining it with pointless action and sloppy editorial decisions. For a long time Film Geek Nation wondered if we'd ever see the original cut of the film, complete with a different ending and a far darker tone. Well, the DVD release of the title does indeed contain something advertised as "Uncut, Raw, and Too Intense for Theaters". The question of course, is could anything make this septic epic work. The answer, is just as confusing as the film - in either version.

The Plot:

Toorop is a mercenary, criminal for hire. When approached by a mobster named Gorsky to smuggle a young girl back to America, the ex-patriot is reluctant to agree. Seems he's in Dutch with the US, and needs money, a new passport, and a purpose to make the job worth his while. After meeting Aurora and her nursemaid, Sister Rebeka, he decides he can accommodate. There is just something very unusual about the naïve young lady. She can speak many languages. She appears to 'read' minds. She anticipates horrific acts of violence. And she predicts that all three of them will die once they get to New York. Of course, Toorop just wants to get her to the Big Apple and get out. Once he learns that she could be carrying a virus, a bomb, or the new Messiah, things get a little dicey. And thanks to the High Priestess of a neophyte religion, a deranged doctor, and a group of criminal co-conspirators, things are about to get a lot worse.

The DVD:

Perhaps Babylon Babies was the wrong speculative fiction to obsess on. Maybe Vin Diesel has worn out his seemingly short shelf life as an action hero lead. It could be that director Mathieu Kassovitz was out of his league when he tackled this unusual vision of the future. There are also the confusing narrative elements, mixing terrorism, religious fanaticism, mercenaries, cloning, genetic manipulation, and artificial intelligence into one massive post-modern bog. Whatever the reason, Babylon A.D. is just not a successful endeavor. It rarely moves us, keeps even its eye candy at arms length, and violates one of the key rules for any brave new world overview - it fails to establish clear cut rules we can follow and champion. Everything about this film is inference, from the reasons why Toorop is in Eastern European exile to the purpose behind Aurora's "planned" heritage. The nods to immaculate conception, biological warfare, and cult cabal conspiracies are just not clear enough. Toss in the last act that goes wildly out of sync with all the pseudo seriousness we've seen before, and it's no wonder Fox freaked out. They clearly knew there was something amiss here, and cut almost 70 minutes of the movie to avoid potential box office disaster (it didn't work, FYI).

So now we are getting at least some of Kassovitz original vision (albeit without any actual participation from the filmmaker who is nowhere to be seen in the DVD materials). The narrative plays a lot less rushed, relying more on the missteps of Diesel and his frequently fetching but inherently whiny costar, Melanie Tierry to carry us along. While not a novice to international movie screens, she's a newbie to those of us on this side of the Atlantic, and it really shows. She's shrill, vacant, and above all, unable to carry the cosmic qualities that a character like Aurora should have. She matches the human hog's bullock one note for bloody one note. When Michelle Yeoh can out act you by doing nothing more than looking concerned, you know your movie is in trouble. Indeed, the worst thing that Babylon A.D. suffers from is casting. When one learns that Eastern Promises' Vincent Cassel was original pegged to star here (but rejected by Fox as not 'bankable' enough), the filmic fever dreams begin. One can easily see him pulling off elements that Diesel can't even approach. Similarly, someone a little more ethereal (think Samantha Morton in Minority Report) would have worked a lot better than Tierry. We never once identify or empathize with this wounded waif.

But it's Kassovitz who carries the biggest burden of blame. Here's someone whose desire was so outsized and demanding that he failed to see the logistical forest for the sci-fi epic trees. He's not Steven Spielberg, or Guillermo Del Toro, or Peter Jackson. Those are directors with scope and spectacle in their blood. If he was hoping to make this more like Children of Men, then he needed to run over to Mexico and find out what the masterful Alfonso Cuarón has been smoking. Clearly, the balance between realism and Blade Runner was never kept in check. The material in New York suffers the most from this bifurcated befuddlement. Half the time we keep waiting for Harrison Ford to show up and start yakking about replicants and stolen memories. Indeed, the best way to describe Babylon A.D. is to call it a combination of Men, Runner, and a lot of potted Parisian ham. Kassovitz has every right to argue over studio manipulation. After all, it's not like Fox didn't read the script or understand the budget before getting into bed with this project. But 'morning after' remorse is never pretty for either party. As a result, both the studio and its unexceptional partner come off looking bad. Even in an extended cut, Babylon A.D. just babbles on, and on, and on.

The Video:

Presented by Fox in every critic's favorite "Screening Only" review copy format (complete with random logo placement), it's hard to comment on the image here. The transfer offered is impressive, but then again, it's not final product. One hopes the actual 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic image surpasses the slightly compressed version experienced for this review. Theatrically, the film had a muted pallet, some minor scope, and an interesting F/X moment or two especially toward the end when the parties reach Manhattan. Here, everything has that mass produced sheen of a press preview disc. Still, for its budget and editorial confusion, the picture looks pretty good.

The Audio:

Though information indicates that this screener provides all the necessary sonic situations of the final Fox packaging, this critic will again reserve judgment. The Dolby Digital 5.1 offered was quite good. The back channels come alive often, especially whenever the action starts up, and there are some nicely ambient moments of when Toorop and Aurora are getting familiar (no, not in that way...). The musical score is grating, however, overloaded with one too many angry hip-hop tracks. At the very least, the dialogue is easily discernible.

The Extras:

Aside from this new cut (meaning that you will not find the original theatrical version on this DVD), there are a series of featurettes which focus on various aspects of the shoot. There is also a deleted scene - the Hummer chase - which used to be part of the film proper. We get a brief documentary overview of how it was created. Similarly, we can scan through a collection of future shock "animated" billboards/commercials, watch author Maurice G. Dantec defend his novel, learn all the tricks about staging a fight scene, learn more about Aurora via an animated graphic novel "prequel", and the various locational nightmares. All the while, director Kassovitz is kept in the background. No commentary. No interview. Just typical EPK bric-a-brac. Once again, this was a screener copy of the film. There may be more (or less) added content on the disc you pick up at your local B&M.

Final Thoughts:

While we may never get to see the actual "director's" cut of Babylon A.D. (rumor sets the original 'vision' at closer to three hours than two), it really doesn't matter. Unless some kind of digital redirection is applied and actors Vin Diesel and Melanie Tierry are replaced with actual human beings with talent, nothing can salvage this staid future shock. Still, for those who can tolerate below average performances, especially in service of a quasi-interesting premise, a rating of Rent It will be offered. In this case, an extra 20 minutes or so is not a 'make or break' deal for your enjoyment. It's just more of an already mediocre thing. At the end of the day, both Fox and Kassovitz had a point. Babylon A.D. was mishandled by a studio who didn't understand the ambiguous approach taken by its untested auteur. And as for the guy behind the lens, next time, he better put his moviemaking skills where his mouth is.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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