We’ll have to give French director Mathieu Kassovitz the benefit of the doubt, and accept his word that Babylon A.D. should have been better. Kassovitz, after all, gave us La Haine, the critical darling that still has people talking more than a decade on, and he gave us Crimson Rivers, a decent thriller whose tinted landscapes are still imprinted on my mind. True, he also gave us Gothika, and if that cheese-curd didn’t suffer the same degree of studio interference as Babylon A.D. allegedly has, it ought to have taught Kassovitz a lesson, at least, about working with Hollywood puppetmasters. Babylon A.D. was hot in trade news long before it opened this week, thanks to replacements, delays, and Kassovitz’s boiling screed against Twentieth Century Fox, which took his porcelain doll and stuck donkey ears and neon-pink pasties on it. Of course, it’s hard to know how much the movie was warped by studio suits, and how much was simply flubbed by a director who dropped a ball he’d been fondling for more than five years, ever since he began molding Dantec’s dystopic novel into a screenplay. But something must have attracted Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Yeoh, Gérard Depardieu and Vincent Cassel to the original script — before Cassel slithered away from the project and was replaced by Vin Diesel. Before Rampling’s and Depardieu’s roles were reduced to less than five minutes apiece of screen-time. And before Yeoh found her athletic skills criminally underused in yet another berserker-diced excuse for an action movie.
That said, I’m not sure if the movie was ever intended by the director to be an action film. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on, but there are scenes in the movie that suggest it was conceived as a thoughtful, post-apocalyptic cultural study with sci-fi interiors and lighting (see: Children of Men and, if you’re feeling generous, Gattaca). There are veins of gold running through this mainstream, like satirical nods to corrupt religious organizations vexed by the presence of virtuous believers; that’s a classic literary approach to human institutions, but it’s one that comes out poorly in the wash, here, despite the illustrious Rampling as a High Priestess with serious political and financial clout. There are scenes that were obviously designed to be dialogue-centric and full of meaning — except the dialogue, as it was ultimately green-lit, is wincingly bad, and in no way is it helped along by Diesel’s inability to let his cock go soft for even an instant onscreen (his idea of “sensitive” or “humane” is a deranged sort of doggy pout more fleeting than an endorphin high). There’s an attempt to focus on the people and gadgets of the future, which creates a mostly believable and self-contained fictional world — but the backdrop isn’t allowed to come into its own as part of the story, and it’s pockmarked by a lot of accidental undermining of the sci-fi genre at its purest, like hokey stunts and that risible fucking “action” editing.
Diesel plays Toorop, a rogue who can make a mean reduction on a stove, appreciate a glass of wine, and (naturally) take out as many armed red-shirts as the scene demands, every time. Toorop lives somewhere in Eastern Europe or Central Asia, but he longs to get back to his American homeland in Upstate New York. The world — from Upstate New York to Eastern Europe — has gone to hell, economically, but for a handful of urban oases where the wealthy can escape the dog-eat-dog streets and engage in the finer art of corruption. Toorop has been blacklisted by the US government and has no chance of getting past customs — unless a crime boss (Depardieu) supplies him with a smuggler’s passport. Toorop accepts the job; he picks up a young woman named Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) and her minder (Yeoh) from a Mongolian convent, and escorts them by car, train, sub, sled and plane through Kazakhstan, across the Bering Strait, down from the Arctic and into New York City.
Of course, there’s something different about Aurora — something mysterious and powerful and River-esque. Why else would a crime boss, a High Priestess and a disgraced scientist have a stake in her life or death? Why else would she scream “I can feel them dying!” when extras are taken out by gunshot, explosion or Arctic waters, or know how to operate a 30-year-old submarine, or speak 19 languages before she was two years old? The Chosen One motif has been milked to death in romance fictions, from Arthurian legends to Westerns to sci-fi, but when it’s handled well, it can sing. Thierry is an arresting face onscreen, and she’s convincing as a haunted innocent with a mighty burden, but the story sags and brings nothing new to an archetype that’s been around as long as humans have generated religions. It’s also … incomplete, as if it were hacked away by an editor bought and paid for by corporate suits who wanted to know what a partial-birth abortion looks like, cinematically. I’m guessing that the novel or the first incarnation of the screenplay toyed with nuances which the suits interpreted as vacuums aching to be filled with nonsense and dropped threads and very boring action sequences.
Whether or not Kassovitz wanted to make an action film (his ravings suggest otherwise), the resulting movie desperately wants to be one, and was marketed as one. It’s a blessing that the fight and chase scenes are few and far between, though, because they stink. Like almost every American action movie in recent years, the fight scenes have negative choreography; they’re merely a series of one-second takes of a pose or a thrust. Yeoh’s dance talents are nullified here, and nothing Diesel does with his body can actually convince us he’s doing that with his body. I know Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films get a lot of love in these parts, but I actually preferred the first Bourne movie, which was the only Bourne movie with any substantial choreography. I don’t care how great the story, acting or tension is, or how tit-swelling a fight sequence can be created through illusion; if a director can’t wrest the time, money and talent it takes from his producers to finesse a kinetic scene with real kinetic bodies, he lost me. We might pick on Tarantino, but Tarantino, at least, respects the craft of staging a fight scene or a car chase, and takes his time and does it well and understands that an action movie without choreography is like a sundae without ice-cream. Fight sequences mounted in an editing booth are what we, as ticket-buyers and reviewers, have brought on ourselves by letting authentic action choreography go the way of the dodo. Babylon A.D.’s casual deployment of negative choreography or berserker editing or whatever we wish to call it proves that we’ve entered a new normal that has gutted a beloved genre at its roots.
To say that Babylon A.D. is the best Diesel film since Pitch Black isn’t saying a hell of a lot, since we’ve made a game of mocking everything he’s done between those book-ends.* But, in the spirit of honesty, the movie has some okay moments, and some nice interiors and tech. Its first half is better than its second, and it pulses with what-might-have-been, and goddamn if the supporting cast isn’t three kinds of impressive. It’s too bad we’re treated to another dystopia in which every set is either under- or over-exposed (yawn), in which a bad-ass soundtrack is over-contrived, and in which a non-actor (what I call a “reactor”) goes through leading-man motions with a ham fist and a mush mouth. I’ve heard rumors that Diesel is an interesting old bean in real life, but onscreen, he’s the kind of guy I laugh at, and his presence makes a jest of Rampling’s. Watching Babylon A.D. is like crossing a toxic mire on diamond stepping-stones that submerge and dissolve the moment you lift your feet off them — it’s generalized crap pitted with moments that glimmer and entrance, and which might even be halfway memorable if your mind doesn’t wander too much while you’re sitting through the thing. — Ranylt Richildis
* If you interpret that sentence as “Babylon A.D. is as good as Pitch Black,” the gods be with you, friend.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 30, 2008.)