Babylon A.D. (2008): Mathieu Kassovitz Second American Feature

Neither satisfying as an apocalyptic sci-fi nor pleasing as a thrilling actioner, Babylon A.D., Mathieu Kassovitz’s second American feature, is a structurally messy, incoherent picture that suffers from all the problems of a big-budget international production.

The performance of action star Vin Diesel is not the major problem of this French-made picture, which, among other things, raises the issue of who was in control, or whose signature the movie bears. Certainly not the author of the novel upon which it is made, “Babylon Babies” by Maurice George Dantec, which dealt with philosophical issues.

A follow-up to his horror flick, the Halle Berry’s cheesy star vehicle “Gothica,” “Babylon A.D.” is just as disappointing, albeit for different reasons. Both American features are a far cry from Kassovitz’s impressive and explosive feature, “La Haine” (“Hate”), which Jodie Foster was instrumental in presenting in the U.S., back in 1995.

Working with his biggest budget today, reportedly around $50 million, some of the actions sequences are decently executed, benefiting from the expertise of renowned stunt coordinator and second unit director Rob Brown (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “The Day After Tomorrow”).

However, released a year or so after “Children of Men,” with which it bears similar thematic resemblance, “Babylon A.D.” will be dismissed as a pale imitation and/or derivative offshoot of that picture, though it must be said that, acclaimed as it was artistically, the Alfonso Cuaron film failed commercially.

“Babylon A.D.” opened in France a week before the U.S. release in a version that’s longer by 10 minutes or so from the American cut (which will have a running time of 90 minutes). While the movie will test Diesel’s clout at the box-office to open a picture, Fox should expect mid-range or below numbers for a quick playoff over Labor Day Weekend, not the best spot to release movies, plus the competition from other thriller and actioners such as “Traitor,” starring Don Cheadle.

The film’s premise is quite intriguing, if also familiar. The tale, co-scripted by Kassovitz and Eric Besnard, is set in the not-too-distant future, when countless satellites observe and monitor every single move. Video commercials are everywhere. Television can’t be turned off; the only “power” citizens have is to change the particular channel. We quickly learn that the whole world is one big war zone, and the vast wastelands are a result of radioactive and nuclear meltdowns.

The story would have made more sense if it were more faithful to the novel’s setting and characters. In Dantec’s novel, which is set in 2013, Toorop is a teenager, not the hardened and seasoned warrior of the film. Similarly, Sister Rebeka is depicted as an old, short, and French woman, but in the movie she’s played by international action star Michele Yeoh, who’s much younger, more beautiful, and Asian. Moreover, unlike the book, the film doesn’t specify the historic time frame, either due to negligence or wish to remain vague.

The best way to analyze the film (and understand its weaknesses) is to see it as Vin Diesel star actioner. Indeed, many changes were made to accommodate his age, physical appearance, cool, laid-back (some may say lazy) manner, and limited acting skills, further hampered by a basso but monotonous voice. (Long in the works, Kassovitz’s film has a troubled history, and initially, it was to star the great Gallic thespian Vincent Cassel.)

Diesel plays a harsh warrior, a mercenary named Toorop (Vin Diesel), who lives by a simple code, kill or be killed. Like the hero (Clive Owen) of “Children of Men,” Toorop is assigned an almost impossible task, to smuggle a young woman named Aurora (stunning French child actress Melanie Thierry), from a convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. He’s carrying both the burden and the responsibility that come with the realization that he is the custodian of the only hope for mankind’s future.

In concept, “Babylon A.D.” is a globetrotting adventure that could be called “The Road Warrior,” for the saga takes the small band of Toorop, Aurora, and her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) on a 6,000 mile journey, originating in Eastern Europe, moving through a refugee camp in “New Russia,” across the Bering Straight in a pilfered submarine, all the way through the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada, finally reaching the New York destination.

There is a workable sequence, set in a Russian refugee camp, where Finn (British actor Mark Strong), helps Toorop, Aurora and Rebeka get passes to board a submarine bound for Alaska, a critical leg in their epic journey. There are also a couple of good scenes between Tooriop and Aurora. A genius who speaks 19 languages and knows how to operate a Russian submarine, Aurora is a product of bizarre background and strict education. Her father, Dr. Darquandier (Lambert Wilson), a scientist long thought dead, has made sure that his daughter combines the best attributes of humans and machines, as the savior of mankind.

Full of obstacles of different kinds, the journey tests Toorop’s personality and skills in a series of tasks and rituals that force him to be always on the alert, make tough moral choices, and examine the very meaning of his existence. To accomplish his goals, he is equipped with an arsenal of futuristic weapons, which include a satellite with an encrypted data communication system, n accurate military GPS, tactical multi-media goggles, and a thermo-electric interactive map.

But technology and weaponry are one thing and morality and code of ethics are another. Though known for his strict inner code, based on his military service, Toororp also realizes that to get his job done, he will have to cross (or blur) the lines. Conceptually, the scenarists can’t decide whether Toorop is a hero in the classical mold or an anti-hero. Toorop is a man at the end of his rope, a war veteran who had both committed and witnessed horrible atrocities, which led to almost completely giving up on any human value, be it love or hope.

Quite disappointingly, considering that Kassovitz is also an accomplished actor (recently seen in a major role in Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich”), the performances leave much to be desired, a combined result of a weak scenario, brief scenes that don’t allow the thespians to develop their roles, and peculiar casting.

Diesel could have developed into a much more credible and popular action hero, based on what we have seen him do in “Saving Private Ryan,” as the wounded soldier, and of course in the movies that catapulted him to stardom, “Pitch Black,” “The Chronicles of Riddick” and “xXx.”

Though every element in the production is big, the overall effect is not impressive. Cars are airlifted by giant electric helicopters, warriors square off in vicious combat inside a “fight cage,” snowmobiles fly through the air while exchanging gunfire, missiles shoot through the streets of Gotham, a target of choice in many of the actioners this summer (including “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight”). But there is no guiding, coordinating hand, and so the whole picture is just loud and noisy.

In what is an international mix of actors, the production suffers from the different accents and acting styles. We get glimpses of Charlotte Rampling, as a Noelite High Priestess who peddles miracles for profit, and Lambert Wilson (who played the Meroviningian in “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”) as Darquandier. Midway, Gerard Depardieu shows up as Gorsky, a Russian crime head, who offers Toorop a lucrative fee for a “favor,” to deliver a package to the U.S.

The score of the film is equally problematic in trying to merge different kinds of music, the sounds and energies of hip hop with more classical music. Vet Hans Zimmer and Atli Orvarsson are credited for the score, and Achozen, represented by Shavo Odadjian and RZA, performed it.

Cast

Toorop – Vin Diesel
Aurora – Melanie Thierry
Sister Rebecca – Michelle Yeoh
Darquandier – Lambert Wilson
Finn – Mark Strong
Killa – Jerome Le Banner
Neolite Priestess – Charlotte Rampling
Gorsky – Gerard Depardieu

Credits

A 20th Century Fox (in U.S.)/StudioCanal (in France) release of a Babylon A.D. SAS, Babylon Films, StudioCanal, M6 Films production, with participation of M6, Canal Plus, CineCinema. Produced by Ilan Goldman.
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
Screenplay, Kassovitz, Eric Besnard, based on the novel “Babylon Babies” by Maurice G. Dantec.
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast.
Editor: Benjamin Weill.
Music: Atli Orvarsson.
Production design: Sonja Klaus, Paul Cross; Supervising art director: John King.
Set decoration: Francesca Cross, Michel Pages.
Costume designers: Chattoune, Fab.
Sound: John Rodda.
Sound designer: Nicolas Becker.
Supervising sound editor, Ken Yasumoto.
Re-recording mixers: Yasumoto, Francois-Joseph Hors.
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti.
Visual effects: Buf Compagnie.
Stunt coordinator: Bob Brown; fight choreographer, Alain Figlarz.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 100 Minutes.

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