There was a point during Babylon A.D. when I seriously thought I would buy it on DVD. I realize that coming from someone who voluntarily watched Barb Wire, this may not be enough to send you rushing down to the video store if it’s ever released. And actually, I’m not going to recommend you do so, because it only took a few minutes after my half-formed desire before the film collapsed in a pile of bad exposition, cheesy science fiction gadgets, and soap opera plotlines.
I went in with appropriately low expectations, even though the movie had a lot going for it in Heroine Content potential. Two of the three major characters are people of color: Vin Diesel‘s Toorop and Michelle Yeoh‘s Rebekah. Toorop and Rebekah really delivered for me as well rounded, strong, determined characters. Granted, Toorop was given about three lines in many of the places where he should have been given one. Not saying that to dis Vin Diesel, but I can’t imagine the hardened mercenary feeling the need to make a speech every time he opens his mouth. One cutting comment would have fit much better. But instead of a killing machine, he was a man, with his own emotions and dreams.
He also grows during the film. Rebekah might have been playing the role of mother, but the film allowed her to share her own history and her own personality. And as always, Michelle Yeoh can take care of herself nicely. (Although I’m seeing a disturbing trend here, since she was also cast as a mother in this year’s Mummy flick.)
The third main character, Some White Chick (Mélanie Thierry), was obviously positioned as the Chosen One around whom all things must revolve, but I was hoping she might do something different with that. For a while, it looked like she might. She made some risky decisions – such as challenging Toorop’s actions and then fleeing with her erstwhile kidnappers against Rebekah’s wishes – and seemed to have her own personality. (When she wasn’t acting possessed, that is. Anyway…) Unfortunately, once the trio arrives in New York and we are suddenly told The Secret of why she’s such a hot commodity, she becomes nothing more than a container. She’s a pawn, and she’s a host, and she commences acting like one.
Over an hour of the director’s version, which would have been R rated, was cut by the studio to make a 93 minute PG-13 rated version, and it really, really shows. I honestly think most of that time was cut from what ended up as the second half, which by the end turns into a pastiche of weepy softly lit scenes with far more dialogue than is necessary for what they contribute to the film, which is pretty much nothing except eye rolling from the audience and a strange sense of Deja Vu in anyone who’s watched Days of Our Lives.
The sets and the atmosphere of Babylon A.D.’s grungy near-future were much better realized than the plot. There isn’t any suggestion of a big apocalyptic event, but Earth isn’t looking so hot these days, except in Kazakhstan near remote monasteries.
If I just think about Some White Chick and the plot, I would have to give Babylon A.D. one star – or perhaps none at all. We sure don’t need another film where a white woman is the future of humanity, and we don’t need any more people of color giving up their lives to save her.
Diesel and Yeoh, though, elevate this film above the typical portrayal of people of color in action films. While Diesel’s acting leaves something to be desired, he wasn’t given much to work with, and honestly he’s got enough charisma that I almost forgive him. Both Toorop and Rebekah are central characters with complex personalities, and the filmmaker’s make them much more interesting than Some White Chick even though she’s supposed to be the focus.
I had dinner with Grace after I saw it, and I was trying to explain how much hope I’d felt at the beginning, then how disappointed I felt at the end. I think she summed up my feelings pretty well, so I’ll share a snippet of our conversation:
Skye: Now I’m even more irritated than I would have been if they hadn’t made me think it was going to be good.
Grace: So basically, you’re upset because it didn’t suck enough?
Two stars. I can see the raw material for a good movie, both from a quality perspective and from a Heroine Content perspective, but this ain’t it.
More commentary: Babylon AD: Yet Another Scifi Flick About the Virgin Mary by Annalee Newitz on io9.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.