Just going by the poster and the trailer, you could probably recognize Babylon A.D. as a bloated big-budget science fiction film. But after viewing the film, and with a few facts to put the film in context -- like the fact 20th Century Fox didn't screen Babylon A.D. for critics, like the fact director Mathieu Kassovitz has already disavowed the film, like the numb dumb clang of every line of dialogue in it -- you realize that Babylon A.D. is a bad, bloated big-budget science fiction film that doesn't even have the distinction of being memorably horrible or bravely idiotic or fascinatingly inept; it's simply an inert mass, a lump of product, a failure too expensive to simply discard.
In a near-future Europe (we're never told the year, but when someone mentions the last Siberian tiger died in 2017, it's implied that was a while ago), a mercenary named Toorop (Vin Diesel) is hired to escort a young woman and her guardian from a monastery in Mongolia to New York. The young woman, Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) has never left the convent; her watchful protector, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), cautions Toorop that Aurora is to be shielded from the world. Toorop's taken the job for the payoff -- he's been promised a wad of cash and, more importantly, a new passport that'll get him off the terrorist watchlist that's exiled him from America -- but as Toorop, Rebekah and Aurora travel through the ruined places of tomorrow, they begin to bond. ...
The bones of Babylon A.D. are a little creaky; worse, they're draped in rotting, flabby flesh. Aurora, after an action sequence, notes out loud to Toorop and Rebekah that "We protected each other. Like family." I always wonder who dialogue like this is for, exactly; are the director and screenwriter offering a helpful hand to theatergoers who may have been in the restroom during the previous scene where we did, in fact, see our plucky threesome protecting each other, much as a family does? Or is it there because the director and screenwriter assume we are idiots? Every line in this film is that clueless, that clumsy, that blunt. In my more innocent youth, watching a bad film, my exasperated question would be Who writes this crap? Nowadays, my ire is directed higher up the film making food chain: Who reads this crap? Yes, Kassovitz and screenwriter Eric Besnard's adaptation of Maurice G. Dantec's novel is a pretty miserable piece of hackwork, but I'm saving my anger for whoever it was at Fox who read the script for Babylon A. D. and somehow overlooked the absence of character, excitement, logic and innovation to cry out Break out the champagne, lads -- I smell a money-maker!
Diesel's Toorop is another in a long line of generic muscle-bound action nihilists, given to spouting lines like "There's no mercy for the weak" before beating people up; you can imagine Toorop lifting the collected works of Nietzsche far more easily than you can imagine him reading them. It's bad enough we've grown tired of Diesel's tough-guy performance tics; what's telling about Babylon A.D. is that even he seems bored with them. Thierry's pouty-lipped psychic is another cliché -- She's the next phase of human evolution and she's hot! -- and no matter how strong her cheekbones are, they can't cut through the leaden, dead dialogue she has to utter in the name of getting Babylon A.D. from scene to scene. Kassovitz must have called in a few markers from friends to round out the supporting cast, including Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson, but each of them simply paws lazily at the confines of their cardboard characters -- crook, fanatic, mad scientist -- like zoo animals who've forgotten what freedom was.
Kassovitz isn't a bad director (La Haine is a stunning piece of work) but Babylon A.D. is a badly-directed film. The action sequences in Babylon A.D. are either laughable (a snowbound fighter drone-versus-skidoo duel comes perilously close to evoking Roger Moore's skiing Bond sequences) or cut so incoherently and ineptly that they have no visual grammar, lacking the basic craft of cinematic storytelling that would link the actors with the action and the action with the plot. A group of toughs is played by various acrobatic experts in parkour, but their scenes are wedged in so gratuitously that the effect is more humorous than exciting, like some 21-st century variation on West Side Story's dancing street gangs: They must be dangerous -- they're so exquisitely choreographed!
Kassovitz blames Fox's heavy hands for turning his lyrical, important film about the importance of children and hope in a dangerous world into a series of action sequences, but, in an election-season paraphrase, Mr. Kassovitz, I've seen Children of Men; I respect Children of Men; Babylon A.D., sir, is no Children of Men. After seeing Babylon A.D. it is impossible to imagine how it could have been any good even before it was ruined alleged studio meddling; Kassovitz's protestations sound like the conniving fabrications of a man telling an insurance company that his wrecked Stanza was, prior to the crash, a Mercedes. Babylon, A.D. isn't bad-but-fun, like The Fifth Element; it isn't bad-yet-somehow-majestically-delusional, like Battlefield Earth; it's not bad-but-worth-fighting-about like Southland Tales; Babylon A.D. is just blandly, bleakly, boringly bad.