22 April 2009

Movie Review: Babylon A.D


Babylon A.D
2008, 96mins, PG-13
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Writer (s): Eric Besnard, Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Simas, George Maurice Dantec (novel)
Cast includes: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Charlotte Rampling, Mélanie Thierry, Gérard Depardieu, Mark Strong
Release Date: 29th August 2008

"Babylon A.D" was from a critical perspective one of 2008’s least appreciated big releases, a film that was absolutely savaged by critics and has to date just about recouped it’s $70 million budget at the worldwide Box-Office. In honesty the film’s turgid post release statistics sit nicely along its reportedly horrible production, director Kassovitz and Fox falling out at nearly every available moment with the latter camp eventually being given final cut on the finished article, whilst the French director pissed and moaned all the way through the pre-release junkets. So I was surprised to find that the film doesn’t really deserve the label of disgrace which the media have heaped on it, for at least an hour "Babylon A.D" is a perfectly fine piece of Sci-Fi cinema. The problem occurs in the final 40 minutes where the tone shift and the story starts to get confused, the cuts that Fox administered to bring the runtime down are painfully obvious at this junction. So overall as a product its mediocrity, but I was just pleased that it wasn’t a full blown stinker.

A few decades in the future the world has degenerated massively, the planet has become a hive of poverty and over reliance on machinery. A mercenary named Toorop (Vin Diesel) accepts a contract from a Russian mobster, Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu), who instructs him to bring a young woman called Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) to New York. Aurora is accompanied by Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) the woman who has stood by Aurora her whole life, and taught her the ways of the Noelite religion. In order to reach his goal, Gorsky gives Toorop a variety of weapons as well as a UN passport so that not only can he complete the mission, but escape his hell hole of a life and begin a new one in America. Toorop, along with the girl and her guardian, travel from the Noelite Convent where they lived across Russia to reach America. However as their journey furthers it transpires there is much more to Aurora than meets the eyes and eventually that she is the key to a plot which could affect all mankind.

The acting in "Babylon A.D" is passable but not exceptional. Diesel is pretty wooden as the lead but effectively all the part requires is a physical presence and gruff nature- both of which he can bring. It’s unlikely that anyone will remember the character of Toorop as a great anti-hero but ultimately within the forgettable picture he gets the job done. Michelle Yeoh plays herself as per usual, she goes for highbrow and sensitive with a bit of her trademark kung-fu thrown in, basically it’s the same performance you’ve seen from her several times before.
Both Charlotte Rampling and Gérard Depardieu ham it up magnificently though not in an unpalatable fashion whilst solid actors like Mark Strong are totally wasted in pathetically short parts. One can only assume that it’s because of the supposed cuts from the studio that several people’s characters are shockingly south of their abilities. Finally Melanie Thierry is actually very good, she is both engaging and innocent whilst also harboring an air of quiet unknown. I liked the way Thierry played the part indeed she’s probably the films stand out turn.

The opening 45 minutes are so of "Babylon A.D" are in equal parts entertaining and interesting, it builds the excitement well and Kassovitz does a good job of introducing us to his characters. The tone at this juncture feels very much like a Chase movie but one that is well executed and with respectable amounts of tension, in other words the correct ingredients to make the thing work. However after that point it all goes slowly down hill, thanks in a part to confused plotting (FOX!!!) and a sudden level of pretentious religious allegory (KASSOVITZ!!!) that derails the pacing and actually ends up making the film look even more silly. There is very little beneath "Babylon A.D’s" surface and so by cooking up a half baked sense of meaning Kassovitz alienates his audience by trying to make them feel dumb, whilst in turn showing himself up as the biggest idiot of all. His previous films have been a mixed bag, 1996’s "La Haine" was an astonishing work from a young director mature beyond his years, but everything since has been a slow decline. I wouldn’t go as far to say that "Babylon A.D" is his nadir but it does linger around the basin of his CV, and leave him in a position that he needs to wriggle out off.

One cannot overlook Fox’s contribution, much about the end of the feature doesn’t make sense and this is likely the fault of the studios aggressive and unfair tampering. One could even suggest that Kassovitz religious undertones might not look quite as foolish and forced had he been able to keep the film exactly as he wished, so maybe the studio is the real villain. Apparently around 15 minutes of footage was axed which is just enough so the picture loosely resembles what it was before, and enough to do it a considerable amount of damage.

The action in the film is well done and largely good fun but possibly a little to sparse for a picture that largely depends on it. Another thing to recommend the picture is the wonderful cinematography and landscapes, they nearly show up the hyper kinetic action sequences when they occur. The most exciting “big moment” the film throws up is one that like in another Diesel movie "xXx" takes place on the snow, it’s well shot and represents a quick and energetic boost of adrenaline to the picture. Sadly the likes of that sort of efficient action can’t overcome the pictures more glaring faults.

"Babylon A.D" isn’t a good film but neither is it a terrible one, it’s the sort of production that is hopelessly lost in the middle in some sort of hell for cinematic mediocrity. There are a few pleasures on show here but overall it’s uneven and muddled final half kill the picture beyond the rescue of even a hero like Diesel himself.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2008


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