King of Kafiristan -> My thoughts on BABYLON A.D. (3/3/2012 4:51:39 PM)
Just wanted to post up some thoughts on this underrated gem. Yes, the movie has problems, but thematically I think it's brilliant. From the opening shot, I found it gripping. We see the derelict Hubble floating in space, and even though North America's electric power grid is lit up like a Christmas tree, there are no high orbit satellites (the kind used for space exploration and interstellar photography). The camera zooms in and as we near the planet it passes through a cloud of low orbit telecommunications satellites. To me this effortlessly gpt across a key fact about the future: Humanity had narrowed it's focus and priorities. We'd stopped looking to new worlds and had instead turned inward. The directors cut features different opening narration that I think is quite powerfully delivered by Mr Diesel.
Save the planet. Whenever I've read that bumper sticker I've had to laugh. Save the planet. What for? And from what, ourselves? What about God, can He help us? I don't think so. God gave us what we have to see how we use it. Shit, rats in a cage would have done it better. Life's a bitch and then you die - bumper sticker philosophy. Yeah, right. Sometimes, you get a second chance.
The theatrical narration which most people experienced omits everything about God and the 'rats in a cage' metaphor, and I think it fundamentally alters the movie
The world Toorop (OK, that name isn't great) inhabits is a frightening one -- frightening because of it's plausibility. Not since CHILDREN OF MEN has a dystopian future felt so real. From the news reports (glimpsed on Toorop's grimy table top tablet computer) we learn terrorism is a frequent occurrence, and the ravages of climate change have hardened people.
Governments seem either unimportant or virtually non existent, and everyone without a Swiss bank account or citizenship in a first world country is scrambling to survive. America is spoken about in hushed tones, an impenetrable fortress nation that's shut down it's borders. Toorop is American, but he's living in exile after having been placed on a terrorist watch list (having served as a 'private contractor' who carried out atrocities for the US government, it's implied). I think his journey is absolutely thrilling, and tautly paced. The music is propulsive and awe inspiring.
Everything about the world of BABYLON AD feels like the present reflected back at us in a harsher light, showing the desperation and hardship around the corner if we continue down this path. The train station bombing sequence speaks volumes about the world of tomorrow: a bomb goes off, killing hundreds.. but no time is spent mourning or in shock; Toorop has to press on before the other dazed survivors can dust themselves off; it's a desperate scramble in order to secure his seat on the train.
We see second generation cloned tigers, "copies of copies", being sold on the black market. The species long since went extinct, and it's implied that even the copies won't be around much longer. You can't keep photocopying a xerox of a DNA strand endlessly.
We see a shot of the train as it arrives at Vladivostok refugee camp, and the tracks have been constructed right over the giant crater left by a blown nuclear reactor. The rest of the plant is still operational, and the tracks have simply been placed over the site of the disaster. In the future, if a Chernobyl happens people no longer have the resources to abandon the site, they have to work around it. That's chilling in a post BP oil spill America.
In order to cross the Bering Straight, the only way left to sneak into the US, Toorop and others make use of a Russian military sub that's contracted itself out for refugee smuggling. In the future, the Russian government is clearly poor enough that the captains of it's nuclear subs use their positions to make a quick buck. The concerns of the "motherland" seem to have been forgotten; everyone is now only looking out for themselves.
BABYLON AD depicts a world that's ceased to advance. There is hardly any "futuristic" technology. Cars still burn gas. Smoke stacks still churn out pollution. My favorite moment of the film perfectly encapsulates this idea: after having safely arrived in Canada, Toorop, Michelle Yeow and Annoying French Person are on board a jetliner headed for New York. What does America look like in this future world? What wonders has the future brought? The camera pull back from the jet, revealing that it's branded with a giant Coca Cola logo, and it's engines are pumping out exhaust fumes. Michelle Yeoh peeks out the window, with a look of near religious awe on her face as she takes in NYC:
It turns out that America has devolved into an apocalyptic electric hell glittering under a carbon monoxide sky.
It's hard to get the full impact of the scene just from these screen shots, but the music which had been building, the chorus rising, reaches a deafening crescendo as New York City - population 22 million - is revealed. It is a stupefying neon nightmare. It's BLADE RUNNER on meth. You can't see it in the still photo, but looking at the NYC of the future is like staring into a strobe light. The sky is blanketed in a choking smog. The fumes are pulsing and flashing as holograms sky write corporate logos onto the underbelly of the noxious clouds. Every building glimmers with shifting, twisting ads. Every surface is licensed and used to bombard the wealthy citizens of the first world with advertizements for luxury goods and creature comforts: Coke, Cellphones, Bottled Water. It's the big apple after Times Square metastasized. Whatever charm the city had has been utterly obliterated, to be replaced with an opressive dystopia where cult leaders project their images on 100 story sky scrapers. It's a not entirely unlikely vision of the future, and the reveal of the city is a powerfully emotional moment in the film.
To get back to the cult for a moment; the other brilliant thing about the movie is the villain's nefarious plot. They're scientologists, essentially, who have spent the past 20 years and billions of dollars genetically engineering an artificial miracle. They plan to dupe the desperate masses and earn their place as a bona fide religion. To me, that's a horrific notion. They're running their faith like a corporation, and their test tube Virgin Mary is treated like the launch of a new product. Their stated goal (we get to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Church leadership)? Profit.
Late in the third act, the french scientist guy explains the point of the film: humanity has ceased to evolve. In the past 100 years, our tech has advanced far more than our civilization. That has to change if we're to have a future.
Now, sure, the movie drops the ball all over the place. Fox held Mathieu Kassovitz hostage during every stage of production and Mr. Roths slimy finger prints are all over the finished product. With that said, the detailed world building on display in the movie, and the ideas it attempts to grapple with, make it an worthy and noble undertaking, and I think it's one everyone should consider reexamining
MY RATING? 7/10
PS: The poster for this film has to be one of my favorite posters of the past five years!