Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Decade of Dreck #30: Babylon A.D.

Charge Shot!!! is celebrating the end of the decade in the most masochistic way we know how - by watching and writing about the 100 worst movies of the last ten years as defined by film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Click here to see RT's complete list, click here for more about the Decade of Dreck project, and click here to see all of the movies we've done so far.

Let me take this opportunity on the record to acknowledge that I like one Mr. Vin Diesel. Long ago, in the turbulent period of man's ascendancy known to scholars and lorekeepers as The Early Aughts, Vin Diesel was hailed as the second coming of the blockbuster action hero. With the back-to-back runaway successes of the Fast and the Furious and xXx, it seemed as if Hollywood had itself a new tough guy to rule the screens, an ethnically ambiguous star who could open a movie with boffo box office.

But then something happened. Vin Diesel lost his luster. It's hard to even guess why, but for one reason or another Diesel was never able to match his early success. Maybe audiences tired of seeing him play the same bald badass in every movie, but that certainly never stopped other actors historical and contemporary. Maybe once you make a lighthearted family comedy about raising kids people lose respect for you, though of course it is what all great action heroes do. It's fairly telling that Diesel's projects currently filming entail sequels to both the Fast and the Furious and xXx, franchises the star left before sequels could be made.

Today's entry, Babylon A.D. asks you to imagine a time when Vin Diesel was the next big thing. Perhaps if this had been made a lifetime ago during Diesel's prime (not to say that he's aged poorly or something) and with competent direction, better special effects, more money, a cast for whom English is a first language...alright, this movie isn't very good.

Babylon A.D. takes place in a not-too-distant future where human civilization has advanced past the edge of collapse. War and disease pervade the planet, refugees and poverty are everywhere, and most vestiges of society take the form of military dictatorship. Diesel plays Toolop, a veteran mercenary jaded by his lifetime of killing. As the film begins, he's given the job of transporting a girl (Mélanie Thierry) and her Mongolian nun escort (Michelle Yeoh) from Kyrgyzstan to the United States. Along the way it turns out the girl, Aurora might be the Messiah, or the Immaculate Conception, or Kwisatz Harderach or something.

The first thing one should know about Babylon A.D. is that it's French. It's very French. While entirely in English, it is very apparent that many voices of secondary and tertiary characters are dubbed.

Now, I'm not dissing gallic contributions to action cinema, I'm as big a Luc Besson fan as any. However, the production has the smackings of the very flashy European style of action movie exported by Besson's collaborators (the man himself is quite talented, the films he produces, though?). Further offenses of the French variety perpetrated by the movie include excessive and boring use of parkour (it just looks silly to me now), and the inclusion of Lambert Wilson.

Babylon A.D. coasts by mostly through borrowing (see: "stealing") from other, better films. The world Toolop inhabits seems like a mashup of Blade Runner, Children of Men, and Escape From New York, all bona fide sci-fi classics. That being said, the production design isn't half bad. It's all been done before but it looks like someone put in an effort.

Even the movie's better-than-usual cast (though don't most of these movies have better-than-usual casts?) can't save it. When you have supporting turns by the likes of Mark Strong, Gerard Depardieu, and Charlotte Rampling, your failure is only magnified.

I'm going to take this time to say it: I love Charlotte Rampling with all my heart, but she's the poor man's Helen Mirren.

Also, because this movie is French, there have to be some toothless jabs at organized religion. It turns out by the story's end that a cult is pursuing Aurora and her protectors in order to pass off her genetically engineered virgin birth as a miracle in order to win more followers and become the world's largest religion.

What's that, Babylon A.D.? The Catholic Church dupes people into believing its doctrines through phony "miracles"? Congratulations, you're about as hip and incisive as Martin Luther.

If there was anything really good to take away from Babylon A.D., it would have to be the scene where Gerard Depardieu, playing a Russian mobster for some reason, is having a video phone conversation with Charlotte Rampling's she-pope. Depardieu asks for more money for betraying Vin Diesel and his friends, Rampling refuses to give in and threatens to kill him. Depardieu scoffs "Kill me? You'll need a nuke to kill me!". He is then immediately nuked. Now that's comedy!

Babylon A.D. offers its audience reheated science fiction tropes with a has-been star that probably still makes tons of money overseas. It is really no wonder it's on this list. Oh, Vin Diesel, please come back to us! Why couldn't you have been in the Expendables? Or at least co-star with Jason Statham in an action movie about bald spies or something.

Babylon A.D. is ranked #92 on the Rotten Tomatoes Worst 100 list with 7% freshness. Its RT page can be found here.