Blame the French?
It’s one thing when a studio won’t screen a movie for critics in advance. But when the movie’s director bad-mouths it even before it opens, it’s something entirely else. That’s what Mathieu Kassovitz has done to Babylon A.D., calling it “pure violence and stupidity” and blaming studio interference with the movie he directed and co-wrote (with Joseph Simas, from a novel by Maurice G. Dantec). Kassovitz can pose as an artist undone by front-office meddling, but he sounds more like a man who breaks wind in an elevator, then shouts “Who did that?” in an effort to throw suspicion on somebody else.
No matter what the script had that Kassovitz didn’t get to shoot, or what he shot that somebody else cut out, the rest of us have to go by what ends up on the screen, and Babylon A.D. is an unruly disaster.
Vin Diesel plays Toorop, a mercenary hired to pick a girl up from a remote monastery in Mongolia and escort her to New York City. He doesn’t know why or who she is, or why he was hired when he can’t even enter the United States because he’s on a terrorist-watch list. He knows only that the man who hired him, one Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu), “needs a man he can trust.”
Meanwhile, we see an ascetic-looking woman addressed as “Your Highness” (Charlotte Rampling) being informed that the girl is on her way. “Our miracle is coming!” she rejoices.
Questions proliferate early on. This person Diesel is playing, just what is his name (the movie is well along before anyone even pronounces his name clearly enough for us to catch)? Where is this burnt-out slum he’s living in? What year is it exactly—or even approximately, for that matter? Why aren’t Depardieu and Rampling mentioned in the opening credits? (Maybe their agents were watching out for their reputations.)
At the monastery, Toorop picks up the girl he’s to escort, Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), and her guardian Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), and yet another question crops up: If this Aurora was raised from infancy in a Mongolian monastery, where did she pick up her French accent?
Throughout the movie, Kassovitz and his co-writer Simas (or those meddling studio suits he’s trying to blame) leave out vital information, such as exactly when this post-apocalyptic yarn takes place (we learn at least that it’s sometime after 2017; beyond that we know only that Harlem has had time to turn into something resembling Los Angeles in Blade Runner). This continues right up to the very end, when the movie doesn’t bother to explain the fate of a major character.
At the same time, Kassovitz and Simas make a near-fetish of including information that’s entirely useless, like the geographic coordinates of every location—“Neolite Monastery, Mongolia, 45° 28’ N, 110 32’ E”—as if Kassovitz think we’ll be checking our GPS units in the audience.
Babylon A.D. leans heavily—indeed, drunkenly—on the sullen star presence of a tattoo-spangled Vin Diesel. While Diesel’s body décor may look good on the movie’s posters, it undermines the story if Kassovitz expects us to believe that a man with literally dozens of distinguishing marks can slip across the border thanks to a futuristic “passport” injected into his neck. But Kassovitz may have decided to take the chance—after all, it makes at least as much sense as the idea of Diesel outrunning heat-seeking missiles on a snowmobile. (In for a penny, in for a pound, eh, Mathieu?)
The title of Maurice G. Dantec’s original novel is Babylon Babies, hinting at a significant plot point. What his (or the movie’s) story has to do with an actual or metaphorical Babylon is unclear, unless it’s an oblique reference to the Tower of Babel—arrogant humankind encroaching on the territory of God, that sort of thing. There are the limp threads of such a theme poking around in the movie—genetic manipulation, virgin birth, etc.—but they’re hardly worth trying to follow or parse out.
Still, a quick look at the book’s entry on Amazon.com does yield the occasional nugget of information for those who give up on making sense of the movie. In the book, for example, Toorop has the given name of Hugo Cornelius. Ho-ho—let Diesel try those monikers on for size.