Babylon A.D. (United States/France, 2008)
Babylon A.D. has the look and feel of a skeleton: an unfinished outline that whooshes by so fast that it becomes incomprehensible as its storyline and characters are lost in a flurry of fast cuts and poorly choreographed action sequences. The film is frustrating because there are instances of genuine visual flair (such as the futuristic New York) and times when one senses there might be ideas worth exploring (the roles of corporate sponsorship and religion in the new order). Alas, this is a case of a potentially epic tale being pruned and diced to the point where its underlying ideas are reduced to trite clichés. The lackluster acting and horrendous dialogue don't help. And it says a lot about Babylon A.D. that director/co-writer Mathieu Kassovitz has made some damning statements about the theatrical version of the production that indicate he is unwilling to endorse the final cut.
Babylon A.D. takes place at some time in the future, in an era when the social order has broken down and corporations rule the cities. Toorop (Vin Diesel) is a mercenary for hire whose services are purchased by a thug named Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu). His job: pick up a "package" from a convent in Eastern Europe, smuggle it into the United States, and deliver it to the high priestess (Charlotte Rampling) of a new religion. The package turns out to be a young woman, Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), who exhibits some strange powers. Accompanying her is her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), the only woman whom Aurora trusts. At first, this is just a job for Toorop but, as he gets to know Aurora and Rebeka, it turns into a personal quest of redemption.
Vin Diesel, once rumored to be the "next great action hero," has apparently fallen upon hard times. Never the most expressive of actors, Diesel sleepwalks his way through this part without seeming to care that he does more than look buff and snarl his silly lines without stumbling over them. There's no intensity or emotion. His character is supposed to become infatuated with Aurora, but you'd never guess that by Diesel's performance. Is there such a thing as "negative chemistry?" It doesn't help that his leading lady seems to have been chosen more for her looks than her ability. Maybe all of her energy is being channeled into speaking English without too thick of an accent. Even the normally reliable Michelle Yeoh can't elevate the level of acting, and one of the few things more laughable than the dialogue in Babylon A.D. is Gérard Depardieu's make-up.
The film's frequent, perfunctory action sequences seem designed more as a means to distract viewers from the lifeless plot than because there's a need for them. They are neither exciting nor entertaining, and the frequent cutting makes it difficult to figure out what's going on or to care about who's winning or which snow speeder is getting blown up. A lot of what happens in the last fifteen minutes is confusing, with a dead character suddenly coming back to life and a live one dying for no obvious reason (I guess - it's not really clear). The ultimate revelation of what's at stake is so underwhelming that it doesn't even rise to the level of a disappointment. Then again, it would be necessary to care about the proceedings in order for this to matter.
Kassovitz is a competent director who has made some workmanlike films (although his previous effort and English-language debut, Gothika, left a little to be desired), so his condemnation of the movie carries some weight. Whether things would have been better had the studio not gotten out the shears and trimmed some 15 minutes is impossible to tell, although it's doubtful that restoring the lost footage would have transformed Diesel's lackluster performance or made the central conceit less ludicrous. Maybe Kassovitz's vision will be restored on DVD. Until then, all we have to judge is the theatrical cut, and it's not worth the celluloid it's printed on.
Babylon A.D. (United States/France, 2008)
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Mélanie Thierry, Gérard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Lambert Wilson
Screenplay: Mathieu Kassovitz & Joseph Simas, based on the novel by Maurice G. Dantec
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Atli Örvarsson
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
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