Reed’s Bargain Bin: Babylon A.D.

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Reed’s Bargain Bin is a recurring column where Reed Farrington tells us about a movie he bought for under $5, and whether or not he regrets the purchase.

Even though Film Junk followers would probably prefer to read current TIFF film reviews than a review of an older science fiction film, I have decided to submit this review of “Babylon A.D.” And at the risk of further enforcing the view that I have a poor taste in films, my review is generally a favorable one in contrast to popular opinion. I was aware that this film did poorly at the box office, but I didn’t realize how many bad reviews this film received until after I had watched the film and checked out the reviews on the Internet. The reason why I watched this film is that I try to watch all the high profile science fiction movies regardless of audience reception. Given that this movie was not screened for critics and that advertising was minimal, I wonder why this movie did not get a straight-to-DVD release instead. Perhaps Vin Diesel’s name attached to an action movie was seen as critic-proof.

I admit that I was curious why the director, Mathieu Kassovitz, had said negative things about the movie prior to its theatrical release. I had never heard a director be so negative about his own movie during pre-release publicity. Kassovitz disparaged his producers for not being supportive of his vision for the film. One would think that saying negative things about people in the industry would be career suicide. Kassovitz does have his own production company and despite his honesty, he seems to be still active in film production since having made Babylon A.D. Earlier, he had shown his talent by winning the Best Director award at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival for a race relations film called La Haine (which translates to “The Hatred”).

The American release of Babylon A.D. was edited to be 10 minutes shorter than the European version. The version on DVD is labeled as “Raw and Uncut” with “over 10 minutes of additional explosive action!” I wonder if this unrated extended cut is the European version. The theatrical cut is also provided on the DVD. My opinion of the film is based on the extended cut. Many reviewers complained about the incoherent and illogical plot for the theatrical release, so maybe the extended cut did fix some of this. I did end up watching the theatrical version before finishing this review. I’ll get back to this later in the review.

In Babylon A.D., Vin Diesel portrays a character, Toorop, not unlike Riddick in my opinion. I even find his XXX character to be like Riddick. I liked Pitch Black, but I found The Chronicles of Riddick to be boring. I am not a big fan of Vin Diesel, but I find his action character persona to be likable. He’s gruff and blunt, but his heart seems to be in the right place. I wonder if Vin Diesel fans would be even more forgiving of this film’s perceived flaws. Many reviewers thought Diesel acted like he was bored in the film and that he wasn’t much of a protagonist, but I’m fine with that kind of portrayal even though I disagree with these reviewers. I thought that Kevin Costner took a bold move by making his character in Waterworld unlikable, even going so far to have his character take food from a child. Toorop is a reluctant hero, but one that can be relied on to do the right thing in the end. He even seems to take food from a child at one point, but he goes out of his way to give food back.

Toorop is hired by a mercenary boss (Gérard Depardieu) to smuggle a young woman (Mélanie Thierry) from a Mongolian convent to New York City. Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) accompanies them. Thus the film is basically structured as a simple chase film with the importance of the young woman being a mystery that slowly unravels with possible misdirection. There is also a mysterious Noelite organization (headed by Charlotte Rampling) that supports the Mongolian convent.

The casting of Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh as Sister Rebeka should probably be a clue that Sister Rebeka is no ordinary escort for the young woman. Yeoh does add tenderness to her character that one might not expect from an action star. She seems to genuinely care for the well being of the young woman in her care. As the young woman, Aurora, Mélanie Thierry has a wide-eyed innocence necessary for a character that has been raised in isolation. Through her, we get the perspective of how badly society has deteriorated. It is understandable how a character like Toorop would be affected by her outlook. As a mercenary, Toorop can’t give a second thought to a human life.

The film makes a point that Toorop has never had a family life. The extreme circumstances of their journey bond Toorop, Aurora, and Sister Rebeka. I thought the performances in the interactions of all three actors were very well done, and I found the dialogue interesting. When Sister Rebeka first meets Toorop, she lays ground rules for the journey. One of the rules is that she has no tolerance for foul language. Well, you can probably expect what Toorup’s response will include.

At the beginning of the film, Eastern Europe is shown as a place where society has broken down with people scrounging to survive. The production design seems very simple, and one wonders if a limited budget is the reason. There are some glimpses of a futuristic society with a mercenary tank’s hi-tech interior being notable. A folding map made of electronic paper is a nice touch. (I don’t think they’ve solved the problem of how to fold a map back after unfolding though.) A motel shower that sprays water based on paid time increments seems logical in a future world where fresh water might be more precious. When the locale switches to New York, it becomes obvious that the film is set in a future time. The blatant exorbitant use of electricity or energy for lighting the city is a stark contrast to the earlier European setting, but it visually displays the class hierarchy that exists between people from different areas of the world.

Scored by composers Hans Zimmer and Atli Örvarsson, the music is a mix of hip-hop, rock, choral and classical music with the emphasis on the latter. Achozen (Shavo Odadjian and RZA) performed the score. Given the theme of the film, I thought the use of choral music was most appropriate. I would think that the use of hip-hop music will date this film when hip-hop has died in a decade or so. (I’m sure Sean will add a Film Junk disclaimer here that this opinion only reflects the reviewer’s personal opinion.)

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Some reviewers have noted that the plot is a mess. At one point, a group of people skilled in parkour attempt to snatch Aurora away. They are easily scared away when Toorop wounds one of them with a rifle shot. One might wonder why they don’t carry weapons or why they aren’t more persistent afterwards. We do find out later who they are. I simply think they are non-violent in keeping with who they are. I guess one has to wonder why Aurora was kept in the Mongolian convent in the first place rather than closer to New York City. Also why is her trip to New York City entrusted to only one individual? I suppose the Noelites might not have wanted to attract too much attention to Aurora, but I must admit that I think the Noelites should have taken precautions for Aurora’s safety. There is a snowmobile action sequence that would seem unnecessary if they simply flew across the snowy region, but maybe with the aerial attack drones, traveling on land offers a better chance of survival. I’m guessing that North America has somehow isolated itself from the rest of the world so that aerial transportation across the border is impossible. In any case, I was not distracted enough by possible plot-holes for me to come away with a negative reaction to the entire film.

The meaning of the title of this film is not overt in the film. The film is based on a French cyberpunk novel, Babylon Babies, written by Maurice G. Dantec who was formerly a punk rocker. The novel has a cult following in France with a New York Times Book Review reviewer stating that the novel is under-appreciated. Derived from an ancient city during biblical times, the word “Babylon” is applied to a place of luxury and sensuality with the unfortunate consequences of corruption and sin. It can also carry the connotation of a place of exile. In the film, the decadence of New York City is reflected in the bright lights. On the other hand, cities in Eastern Europe and Russia are places of exile from what we see. Terrorism seems to afflict Europe and Asia whereas New York City seems unaffected. I got the impression that terrorism was maintained or at least supported by corporations. I should note that Babylon Babies was published in 1999 before 9/11. The film has been Americanized in that the final destination in the novel was in Quebec, Canada rather than New York City.

The “A.D.” in the title is a foreshadowing although Toorop does narrate in the opening minutes of the film that he “died.” When applied to dates, I always think of “A.D.” as meaning “after death” (i.e., of Christ) when it actually stands for “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “in the year of the Lord.” To avoid spoiling the plot too much, there are religious overtones that make the use of “A.D” in the title significant.

Admittedly, my review might be imposing a thoughtful interpretation that this film doesn’t merit. But I think this film also works as an entertaining, mindless action film. The action sequences aren’t really exceptional, but there are a few cool moments. I thought the camera placement and movement was excellent throughout the film. I thought the movie was paced well and I didn’t find any scenes to be extraneous. I guess if I were to find fault, I would say that the film doesn’t offer much new to say about its subject matter. However, there was the strange new idea to me that the hotel room’s massive television screen couldn’t be turned off. You could only change the channel. Or maybe Toorop was making a joke.

As I had mentioned near the beginning of this review, I decided to watch the theatrical version of this film weeks after watching the extended unrated cut. I found myself engrossed in the narrative again, so I guess this is a testament to the movie standing up to repeated viewings. The DVD doesn’t have any feature that tells you the differences between the two versions on the DVD. And since Kassovitz has pretty much disowned this film, there isn’t a director’s commentary or any commentary at all to help. There also aren’t any “making of” featurettes. Because I had watched the unrated extended cut weeks earlier and my memory fades rather quickly, I didn’t notice which scenes were missing from the shorter theatrical cut. I did notice that the ending had been altered. One review I had read said that the theatrical version had the worst ending of any movie he had ever seen! So I guess the people involved in the unrated extended cut agreed with this assessment. Surprisingly, the theatrical cut contains an ending action sequence that is omitted from the unrated extended cut.

If you’re a science fiction film fan, then you’re probably aware of many versions of Blade Runner. The theatrical release of that movie had a Dekker narration that was added in order to make the film understandable to film audiences. At the theatres, many reviewers found the plot of Babylon A.D. incomprehensible (or at least illogical as I’ve halfheartedly explained with examples earlier). So in the case of Babylon A.D., it appears that additional Toorop narration was added to the unrated extended cut for DVD to make the film understandable. I don’t have an immediate preference for either cut of Babylon A.D. I can see why some people might find the “feel-good” ending of the theatrical cut to be schmaltzy. I hope I’m not spoiling the ending by saying this, but Babylon A.D. could be an unintended prequel to Vin Diesel’s movie The Pacifier.

Amount I paid: $3.33.
Bargain bin rating: $4.25.

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  • ole

    You are not alone in liking this movie, It has a couple of decent action scenes and the direction by Mathieu Kassovitz is solid. I highly recommend his movie Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers)

  • Kasper

    I just saw the theatrical cut of this back when the film was new and I was surprised of all the hatred that was geared towards the movie as it wasn’t all that bad. Not saying that it was especially good either, but as a dumb action film it worked. I never got bored but never got all that interested either.

  • DaleCooper

    Could have been a great action flick (interesting Children-of-Men-ish premise), but the last 30 minutes felt really butchered to me. Didn’t like the ending at all. That’s why I was looking to the 160 minutes uncut version, which sadly turned out to be just a myth/misunderstanding. :-/

  • Niklas

    I caught about half of this on superchannel. I liked the beginning but after they got on that submarine I think it went downhill fast and I turned it off.

  • I was disappointed by the ending of Children of Men. Maybe because the beginning was so strong. In retrospect, I think Children of Men is more mindless than Babylon A.D.

  • Paul Andrews

    The film wan’t great, but I enjoyed it; and at $3.33 I think you’ve bagged a real bargain there Reed.

  • Big Hungry

    I got it used a couple months ago… I payed $7. So you beat me on the sale and I have not watched it yet….. so I will have to put in on my list for the month.

  • all well, but… “dekker”?

  • Oops, thx for pointing out that mistake, tozo. I forgot to do my fact checking with that name. Of course, I should have written “Deckard,” the last name of the character played by Harrison Ford.

  • steve

    I must admit i’ve been put off watching this by the negative reviews, but you seem to add a glimmer of hope for the movie, I may well search the bargain bins.

  • kyriacos

    I haven’t watch BABYLON AD yet.. i thought it was lame.. but i ll check it out since you guys recommended it (in a way)..

    @Reed..

    i am pretty sure that you.. Reed did not really got The Ending of Children of men..

    I mean.. just because a fucking boat with the name Hope shows up at the end it does not mean that The Human Project really exist… It only means that a boat with a name HOPE pass for regular bases from that spot (probably for fishing)
    But because people are stupid and desperate believed (as always) that was some kind of Rescue plan for the human race by somebody..
    The film is so Ground based and as we all know human project could never exist in the real word. The director of the movie could show you in all kind of fucking ways that the HUMAN PROJECT does not really exist but he choses not to and leaves an open ending..

    So if you are a UFO conspiracy theory kind of guy then you ll believe that Human project existed..

    I , from the other hand choose to believe that everything is SHIT HOPE was just a fishing boat and Clive just died in vane .. the good thing is that the black girl at least is saved,,

    Children of men is an AWSOME movie..

  • Thx for your interpretation of the ending of Children of Men, kyriacos.

    IMO, the problem with all “intelligent” science fiction films is that they either end without providing answers or with a lame deus ex machina. So I guess it’s unfair of me to criticize Children of Men for its ending.

    BTW, I sort of feel uncomfortable recommending films that the majority of film critics seem to not like. I think most people realize that my opinions often differ from the rest of the Film Junk guys. Sean and Jay have no interest in seeing “Babylon A.D.” I hope people don’t view my perspective as indicative of Film Junk’s and I hope people don’t hold my views up against the website’s.

  • kyriacos

    Reed Relax mate.. i was already that close watching the film anws because i really liked Pitch black with Vin D . but at the very end i hesitated due to the bad reviews.. but Since you recommend it i bet is not all that bad.. ..(i hope)
    i am not one of those who believe that your taste in movies is all bad .. maybe you re just a more firm film critic that the rest of the group :)

    i guess you can check out a French sci-fi movie called CHRYSALIS

    i didn’t really liked it a lot but maybe you ll like it..