Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Dystopian Sci Fi Movie Face/Off! (Babylon A.D.)

As mentioned yesterday, exposure to the brain-lacerating horrors of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road has left me in a bit of an emotional state. His command of image and mood is been used to conjure up something even more terrifying than Anton Chigurh and Judge Holden combined and multiplied; a vision of a world turned to ash by nuclear war, with no sunlight and no plant life, the survivors pretty much waiting to die or banding together to eat their fellow man. McCarthy is ruthless and relentless, and by the time I was done with it, even the small glimmers of hope found within (and the beautifully rendered relationship between the protagonist and his son) are not enough to dispell the cloud of doom hanging over my head. Stupid genius writer.

In an attempt to cheer myself up I have watched comedies and quality contemporary drama, but neither did the trick. So, in an attempt to vaccinate myself (after the fact, but still), I decided to watch some dystopic sci fi set in post-apocalyptic future worlds, except this time I figured I should go for something less brutal, more fluffy. There are grades of awfulness within the genre, with The Road being at the top of the awfulness chart, and everything else seeming jolly in comparison. Several contenders came to mind, including Richard Stanley's Hardware, the 2000AD comic strip "adaptation" (i.e. the rip-off that caused a lawsuit) that came out in the 80s. It was shown on Zone Horror a week ago (not long after they screened Stanley's second film, Dust Devil), and I watched it to see if it was as bad as I remembered. Amazingly, it was even worse, being little more than a clumsy barrage of noise and image and embarrassing dialogue and silly acting. Just appalling, and quite hideous. It's so bad that I'm beginning to suspect that his version of The Island Of Doctor Moreau might have been just as bad as John Frankenheimer's version, and it might not even have been as entertaining. That would equal total fail.


So which films to watch? Thankfully Neil Marshall's Doomsday just hit DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, and Mathieu Kassovitz' Babylon A.D. came out last Friday, so it seemed logical to try those out for size. I will say that, in their own way, they made me feel better about the forthcoming end of the world, but were they any good on their own terms?

Actually, Babylon A.D.'s only real gift to my tortured psyche was to show a plausible future world that wasn't a landscape of mere ash and death, but was a well-designed cyberpunk-style amalgam taken from various different sources, most notably Alfonso Cuaron's magnificent Children Of Men. Of course, as we're talking about cyberpunk here, there is also the unavoidable influence of William Gibson, godfather of the sub-genre, whose Neuromancer remains unfilmed while his ideas pop up in other movies all the time. And yes, I'm still bitter that Chris Cunningham never got to make his version of that book.

Babylon A.D. is based on a French cyberpunk novel called Babylon Babies, by Maurice G Dantec, whose hyper-aggressive website has to be seen to be believed. I'm sure I read somewhere that he is a contemporary of noted humorist Michel "Monsieur Happy" Houellebecq, which makes me want to read his books even more now (thanks to the lovely chaps at Aphrohead Books, my copy of Babylon Babies is on the way). From what I gather from this MIT Press synopsis, Dantec's book sounds pretty dissimilar to the movie I saw on Monday.

Set in the hidden "flesh and chip" breeding grounds of the first cyborg communities and peopled by Serbian Mafiosi, Babylon Babies has as its hero a hard-boiled leatherneck veteran of Sarajevo named Thoorop who is hired by a mysterious source to escort a young woman named Marie Zorn from Russia to Canada. A garden variety job, he figures. But when Thoorop is offered an even higher fee by another organization, he realizes Marie is no ordinary girl. A schizophrenic and the possible carrier of a new artificial virus, Marie is carrying a mutant embryo created by an American cult that dreams of producing a genetically modified messiah, a dream that spells out the end of human life as we know it.

Inspired by Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, Gilles Deleuze, and other extrapolationists [OMG my new favourite word! - Neck] of the future, Babylon Babies unfolds at breakneck speed as Thoorop risks his life to save Marie, whose brain—linking to the neuromatrix—loses all limits and becomes the universe itself. Exploring the symbiosis between organic matter and computer power to spin new forms of consciousness, Maurice Dantec rides Nietzsche's prophecy: "Man is something to be overcome."


It sounds like a Gallic version of Gibson's Count Zero, but with a focus on Catholicism instead of voodoo. While the movie is set in the Russia of the future, and presented as a broken society filled with barely functioning ghettos, black marketeering, and militaristic mercenaries, it ends up in New York, which, according to this excellent review, is not how the book ends. It features hints of a virus bomb, ineptly expositioned by Vin Diesel during one of the many slow dialogue scenes (a shame as this hastily explained plot point is the engine that powers much of the later half of the movie), and the young girl ferried by his character Toorop is indeed a genetically engineered faux-Messiah created to give credence to a new religion formed by Evil Charlotte Rampling (the one idea in the movie that I liked), but there is nothing about a Neuromatrix, nothing about Jeremy Narby's theory of conscious communication with DNA itself (which is a damn shame), and barely anything about trans-human or post-human theory. Instead we get The Transporter, transposed to the grimy future, and without even a greased-up Jason Statham to entertain us.


Of course, as I've discussed before, Mathieu Kassovitz has publicly disowned the movie and called Fox a bunch of assholes, for which I will always kinda love him. The movie I saw on Monday is apparently nothing like the vision he had originally, and so maybe in the version there would have been a Neuromatrix, and a woman who is one with the universe, and ayahuasca visions, and a proper ending. Instead, the film is a framework of setpieces and locations, with talented performers moving from place to place and having conversations that mean nothing. Emotionally the film is dead in the water, and with budget cuts and other tamperings evident throughout, the action set-pieces slam and crash and oof but mean nothing. It's your actual "sound and fury signifying nothing", except in a credibly realised, if unimaginative, dystopian future.


The world Kassovitz has created is fun for the most part. The Russian scenes (filmed in the wintery cities of the Czech Republic) look convincingly desolate, with the locals dressed in either warm winter coats or Euro-trash tracksuits and bling, which was another touch I loved. The few shots we see of the country from the air show few lights, the odd enormous crater, cities broken and jerry-rigged. It's all great, and the industrial settings in "Vladivostok" are convincingly depressing, as are the scenes of cramped markets, crowds of refugees, and the odd bit of chaotic and ill-explained ultra-violence.


Nevertheless this cheered me up way more than McCarthy's bleak vision, because at least in that world there is still a semblance of society, with a barter system and entertainment and a version of community spirit that is brutal (i.e. Diesel punches the odd person while growling), but still better than the terror of The Road. I would hate to live in Babylon A.D.'s world, but it's better than McCarthy's alternative.


In contrast to the grungy desolation of Eastern Europe, when our band of heroes arrives in New York, we see it looks like it's doing just fine in the future, which struck me as strange. I'm sure any economist would predict America would not be thriving in a future that sees Europe fall so far towards the brink of anarchy, but I guess New York would certainly thrive (certainly in the centre of the city) while the rest of the country suffers. We don't get a chance to see what the rest of the US looks like at this point. It does seem to have a very strict passport policy (it involves implants in the neck), and outside Manhattan the roads are messy enough to allow for some ineptly edited car chases, so maybe it's falling apart there too. Still, at least New York has the obligatory futuristic talking adverts covering the sides of skyscrapers, though sadly it merely makes it look like Jean-Michel Jarre's concert in Houston taken to the Nth degree.


The onscreen world is pretty much all I liked about the movie. I've defended Diesel in the past, but he's on the verge of parody in this movie, posing as a tough guy in an unconvincing manner and merely hinting at an inner life of regret and courage. Again, perhaps a longer version of this will make a difference, and it is possible his performance was gutted by the editing as Kassovitz has hinted, so forgive me for being rude when in fact he might have been better in the original cut, but in the version I saw, he did not convince. He spends most of the movie with Mélanie Thierry (playing the Virgin Mary-esque Aurora) and Michelle Yeoh, whose role as a kung-fu nun should have been the best thing about the movie, but sadly wasn't.

The trio of characters certainly evoked memories of Children Of Men, which is a comparison Babylon A.D. just doesn't need, especially as, in the original novel, Toorop is joined by an Israeli army vet called Rebecca and Irish assassin named Dowie, and not a kung fu nun who spends most of the movie denying her kung fu nunniness, much to my disappointment. Why Kassovitz and co-writer Eric Besnard thought that echoing Cuaron's superior movie by paring the group down to three (and eventually two) was a good idea escapes me. Okay, so changing up Pam Ferris for Michelle Yeoh appeals to me as a dedicated Yeoh fan, but Ferris was great, as were Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Plus, Kassovitz is utterly unable to replicate Cuaron's imaginative action scenes and visual trickery, falling back on little more than the CGI effect of making cameras go through closed windows over and over again. He did this numerous times in Gothika as well. Can someone stop him from overusing this trick, please?


Mélanie Thierry is fine; she has to play vulnerable and messianic, and does those two things reasonably well (i.e. she shrieks and looks calm at different points of the movie), with the bonus challenge of feigning sexual interest in Diesel despite that being out of character, but Yeoh is utterly wasted. Her natural gravitas, maturity, and grace are barely in evidence here, replaced instead with almost mute fear and sporadic outbreaks of poorly shot kickassery that happen without explanation of how a nun from a Mongolian monastery is able to beat the crap out of anyone standing in her way. This is one of the cardinal sins of the movie, as Yeoh's presence was one of the deciding factors when debating whether to see this or not. She is the hardcore goddess of kung fu cinema, and keeps getting stuck in choad like this. Adding a bunch of free runners jumping around a cramped warehouse does not mitigate the side-lining of the formidable Yeoh.


The rest of the main cast are almost as wasted. Mark Strong appears wearing yet another unappealing wig, playing a smuggler who may or may not be trustworthy (hint: he's not, obviously). He gets little to do other than be friendly and then deceitful, and missed a trick by not cackling maniacally when his easily predicted betrayal happens about ten minutes after he is introduced. Lambert Wilson pops up as a geneticist who is also the father of Aurora. Entertainingly, he is covered with plastic wires to denote his part-cyborg nature, and is appropriately benevolent and tragic.


It's a bit of a nothing role, and his hasty departure from the movie leaves about a million questions unanswered. Compared to his memorably oily and hammy performance as The Merovingian in the Matrix sequels, this is forgettable stuff. Gerard Depardieu is also featured as Russian bigwig Gorsky, almost unrecognisable under a bad wig and a prosthetic face. He resembles Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, to be honest.


Why they did this is beyond me, and his low-wattage performance also disappoints. This is the guy who played the definitive Cyrano de Bergerac? Who acted De Niro off the screen in Bertollucci's 1900? Still, at least he's not playing Obelix again, even though anyone could have played this part. Hell, I could have done it. Slap a fake nose on me and I'll tyalk with Rhoshyan accent forrr pennies if necessary. Film producers, contact me via email if you need cheap acting in a hurry.


Worst of all, Charlotte Rampling's appearance as the High Priestess of the Noelite cult is utterly mystifying. She's only on screen for a little while, but she makes a hell of an impression. At first her cold and steely demeanour are de riguer for this kind of impassive and sinister religious nutjob, but as the film enters the incomprehensible final act, she starts twitching her head like a robot, delivering her lines with a mixture of artificial flatness and bad-guy posturing. It makes very little sense. Though it's not up there with Fiona Shaw's unmissably berserk appearance in Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia it's still the kind of eccentric acting that makes you wish there was more of it. Certainly a longer cut might give us more fun, though it could also explain what the hell is going on with her, and in a perverse way I don't want to know. It stands alone as a kind of curio; further exposition will merely remove the fascinating mystery.

Still, for the most part I was pleasantly bored, less than excited by the slow-moving plot and appallingly badly edited action scenes, but held in my chair by what I will have to refer to from now on as the Genre Baseline, which is the automatic amount of forgiveness and pleasure I will have for any film or book that is of a genre that I love (I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels this way). I've said it before, but just once more for the record, I love sci fi so much that even crappy sci fi holds a grip on me, as long as it has the odd good idea or gimmick. I'd much rather see the good stuff, obviously, but I'll be more forgiving of the not-so-good (example; Equilibrium is derivative tosh, but it's derivative tosh featuring GUNKATA and Christian Bale breaking bones and so therefore is automatically awesome).


For most of its running time, Babylon A.D. is kinda dull, with the odd interesting setpiece to distinguish it. I especially liked a mad scramble across an icy expanse to get onto a submarine, though sadly not long after that we're given a shoddy action scene with Diesel's stuntman flipping his snowmobile through the air and shooting down missile-laden drones. Where did they get the snowmobiles? Why are these dangerous drones vulnerable to pistol-fire? Bleh.


It continues in this manner until about fifteen minutes before the end of the film, with Aurora saving our hero by shooting him (?!?!?), doing something mystical with a big exploding missile (apparently the immaculately-conceived twins she is carrying are able to manipulate reality), and then disappearing. Lambert Wilson rebuilds Diesel using some plastic, and then hacks his memory to find out where Aurora is hiding. Diesel goes to find her with a couple of Wilson's men, while Wilson gets shot by the High Priestess, who then disappears from the movie and is never mentioned again.


Diesel finds Aurora, battles with some of the Noelite redshirts in a boring and badly edited car chase that involves Diesel using grenades and his brand-new enhanced arm to generate some extra 'splodey, and then several months later hangs out with Aurora as she is about to give birth. Look after the twins, she says, and so we fade to several years later. The twins (one black, one white, both girls) are sitting in a pretty garden as a white-clad and benevolently smiling Diesel walks up to them, tells them a storm is coming, and then takes them into the nearby house. The End.

I'm not kidding, that is how it ends. Now, I don't mind obscure finales, and have passionately defended many films with impenetrable final acts, but that is ridiculous. There is no line of dialogue anywhere else in the movie that sets up this finale. There is no way of interpreting it because there is no possible logical interpretation. It just ends, with characters dropping out for no reason (did Aurora die? Did she turn into a ball of light and vanish? Did the High Priestess just give up?), and no hint of what it is that the "storm" represents. Once more I assume Kassovitz and Besnard knew what they were doing originally, and had their cut changed by Fox suits, and apparently the French release has a different ending with no car chase and more chat between Diesel and Aurora, but who the hell thought this was an acceptable way to end a movie? Did some bean-counter at Fox get assigned to the film and think, "Fuck it, it's sci fi, we can just make the ending completely impenetrable and they'll make up excuses for it, cuz sci fi fans are stupid"? Did they get Richard Kelly to re-edit the ending? It certainly seems that way. Intentionally creating an ambiguous and incoherent ending in the mistaken belief that not making sense is the same as generating profundity and post-movie debate is his bag, after all (if you don't believe me, bite the bullet and watch the criminally terrible Southland Tales).


The ASBO-YOBS that filled the cinema when I saw it took great pleasure in hooting at the screen (prior to stabbing it with their knives), and I felt like joining in. I'm sure the source material has a peculiar ending, but it must have made sense to someone. This, on the other hand, is a debacle. I don't blame Kassovitz and Diesel for disowning it; I would have done the same thing. No matter how generous you feel, or how much you wanted it to succeed (and I certainly did), this is a failure. Once international box office is taken into account, perhaps the movie will make a tiny profit (it's not like Fox can be expected to add much to the surprisingly small $70m budget in terms of advertising, as the film got almost no promotion). If so, Fox will inevitably milk the teat with a director's cut, if Kassovitz is willing. If so, I look forward to it, and I can't wait to read Dantec's novel. That doesn't mean I think the world desperately needed to be told this story, but I'm willing to wait to see if there is a version of it that justifies this movie's existence, because this version sure as hell isn't it.

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