Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2008

Dystopia 101

Kassovitz, Diesel imitate the best of sci-fi with lackluster results

Babylon A.D.
20th Century Fox
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenplay: Mathieu Kassovitz and Eric Besnard, based on the novel Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Melanie Thierry, Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson and Mark Strong
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes
(out of four)

If you saw the trailer for Babylon A.D. and thought to yourself, "Hey, that kinda looks like a low-rent, mainstream version of Children of Men!" - you were on the right track. And, for that matter, if you followed that rhetorical question with the word, "Awesome!," then you are the audience for Babylon A.D.

But every movie has an audience. The audience that director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, The Crimson Rivers, also Audrey Tautou's shy fella in Amelie) was going for was reportedly swiped from him by the studio, which wanted to make this dystopian thriller more action-oriented and less substantive. This all comes from the mouth of Kassovitz himself, who bashed the film and his entire experience with it not long before it was released.

Apparently the studio execs got their fat little fingers all over this one, which means it's official: this type of dystopian thriller has officially become its own marketing brand.

Since Minority Report revolutionized the visual possibilities of the subgenre six years ago - under everyone's noses, it seems - I've seen so many films bite its visual ideas, it's not even funny. The transparent touch screens, the hyper-interactive maps and newspapers and magazines, the obtrusive and personalized advertising, the automated surveillance machines. Everything bursting with colors and graphics with that synthetic, metallic, digital feel - all the world's information turned into a hi-tech computer screen.

Basically, Times Square multiplied by 50.

At this point, even non-science fiction movies are getting in on the act, trying to accelerate a future that isn't quite here yet. Twenty-six years ago, the cityscape of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner provided a glimpse into the future - now, it looks all too familiar.

I expect the same will be true, to some extent, of Minority Report and its more successful successors. Before then, however, we will see more and more imitators - more copying of the classic models and less thoughtful experimentation with the myriad possibilities that the dystopian genre offers. As Babylon A.D. demonstrates, we have begun to see more of the same. I suppose that was inevitable.

The film is not without its fine moments, but too often settles for saying less when a scene or an idea or a character clearly begs for more exploration. Whether it's his fault or the studio's - or a combination of both - Kassovitz opts to play it safe.

The film stars Vin Diesel as a mercenary charged with the task of bringing a young woman, Aurora (Melanie Thierry), across the border into New York, along with her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Aurora has certain supernatural abilities - the result of genetic manipulation - that are of particular interest to two opposing parties. (I'll let the details of their identities remain a tasty secret for the truly intrigued.)

Along the way, the trio will encounter more sinister mercenaries, soldiers, thieves, cops, etc., but Kassovitz tries his best to keep the focus on the characters - even though action setpieces keep poking their way in. The film dabbles in a number of issues concerning this futuristic world, but dabbling is as far as it gets. We see machines rapidly performing miraculous age-defying work and then the idea is discarded. We get hints of rampant genetic engineering, governmental-corporate collusion - yet none of it is ever explored. It seems we always come in at the end of a conversation or revelation - that, or we leave just as it's beginning.

Never is that more clear than in the final act, during which the film abruptly shifts into an entirely different gear, leaving hundreds of hanging threads carelessly in its wake. All this is capped off by a thoroughly absurd and perfunctory epilogue that requires massive leaps in logic that the film never earns.

When you see a movie like Minority Report or Children of Men, you hope it will inspire generations of future filmmakers. What we like to forget is that great films can also inspire bad imitations. This is one of them.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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