Babylon A.D. (review)

End of the World

It’s mad mad Mad Max world in which Vin Diesel lives in the nonspecific near future of Babylon A.D.: Rabbit carcasses for food are for sale in the park by suspicious-looking peasant women, but you can still get wine to go with it. Google brings you the news — all riots and science run amuck — on your widescreen TV. Luxury tanks come complete with liquor bars and four-wall video windows (complete with green-tinged night vision) but “UN passports are impossible to fake.” Nuclear disaster has ravaged the third-world-ish Russia, and the beatific mug of Al Gore graces the front of T-shirts like he’s the Pope. “Viral bombs” are a risk, and that’s, perhaps, why there’s a demilitarized zone in Alaska. It’s not exactly pleasant, yet it’s not exactly much different from the world we live in, which would look like science fiction, when presented with a certain slant, to the citizens of only 30 years ago.
So it’s actually not unintriguing, for what it’s worth, this mysterious yet almost recognizable world. Diesel (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Find Me Guilty) himself is flat and loutishly unappealing, for all that he’s supposed to be Our Hero, but this brutal, Firefly-esque world director Mathieu Kassovitz (Gothika) is sending him through — courtesy of novelist Maurice G. Dantec, upon whose novel Babylon Babies this is based — is kinda riveting, in an appalling way, in a way that makes you wanna make sure we never end up living in it. Even, dare I suggest it, in a Blade Runner kind of way. This surprised me, because Babylon A.D. was withheld from critics — I popped into a multiplex to see it on Friday afternoon, among a small, mostly disinterested crowd; but I found myself sorta not hating it, and sorta fascinated by it, for about 45 minutes or so.

Alas that the movie’s about 90 minutes long.

Diesel’s a mercenary — he makes a point of noting that this is distinguished from being a terrorist, and you have to admit: Fair enough. He’s living in what appears to be one of the old Soviet republics, now gone totally to hell, when he is hired — one could say “coerced” — to escort a young woman from the middle of third-world-Russia nowhere to America, to New York. We don’t know why she is needed there, which replicates the need-to-know that Diesel’s Toorop lacks. And that works great too: part of the minor thrill of the first half of Babylon A.D. is that we don’t quite have enough information to work on, which keeps us on the edge of our seats. In a small way. I don’t want to oversell how much I did not dislike the first half of this flick: It’s fine. It’s nothing new to anyone who’s seen a sci-fi flick or two. But it’s competently executed.

And even when Toorop and the girl — Aurora (Mélanie Thierry, one of those generically pretty young French actresses with pouty lips and pasted-on ennui) — and her guardian, the nun Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh [The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Jet Li’s Fearless], who is, admittedly, wasted here; she doesn’t get to surprise us by kicking anywhere near as much ass, in martial-arts fashion, as you’d expect), arrive in New York, there’s a few more minutes of way-coolness. The city is as sleek and sophisticated, in that neat-o near-future way, as Russia was bleak and dystopic, and even if that merely points out how much more interesting the background is than the characters who are playing in front of it, well… to a deeply geeky fan of futuristic science fiction, that’s enough to justify the cost of admission.

But then Babylon A.D. does the unforgivable. Even though you’ve spotted it as much as you can spot it, it asks for more: it asks you to ignore how absolutely preposterous it gets. It starts to veer into the inexplicable when it has Aurora do something that should make people shoot her dead, as those people have just minutes earlier shown they are capable of doing when their agenda is threatened. (For those who, regrettably, gave in to the impulse to see the film, I refer to her actions immediately after she has boarded the submarine — why didn’t the sub crew just take her out? It makes no sense.) But then it’s as if the movie decides it likes that preposterous route, and sticks to it. After holding so much back about this world and why Aurora is so important, it just starts gushing about it in the most ridiculous way. It’s not that the ideas the movie ends up being about are ridiculous: it’s how they’re presented that makes you want to laugh, and then to cry, because the potential was here for a truly interesting exploration of concepts of biological science and how they could be used to manipulate society. But the hamhandedness? Oy!

Characters seem to forget their own motivations (it’s probably not wise to engage the person you need intact, in a bodily sense, in a high-speed vehicular chase/gun battle). Emotional endings are deployed without the necessary buildup to make them, you know, emotional. It’s really too bad, because seeing potential squandered is always worse than seeing no potential at all.

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