In the far-flung future, hard-bitten mercenary Toorop (Vin Diesel) is seconds away from being blown to bits. In flashback he recalls how Russian mobster Gorsky (an inexplicably dubbed Gérard Depardieu) hired him to escort a mysterious package safely from Mongolia to New York City. That package turns out to be Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), an angelic young woman with psychic powers, under the guardianship of Noelite nun Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). As they embark on a dangerous journey across Eastern Europe, various gunmen and assassins try to steal Aurora away, while a shadowy religious group led by the High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) trails their every move.
Based on the novel Babylon Babies by Maurice Georges Dantec, it’s hard to evaluate Mathieu Kassovitz’s intentions since his movie emerged as a shadow of what it was intended to be. Kassovitz spent six years developing the project, with regular collaborator Vincent Cassel originally set to star, before Twentieth Century Fox pumped in some extra cash and foisted Vin Diesel as the new lead. With Fox executives’ constant interference, reputed clashes with Diesel, and his final cut reassembled according to the studio’s wishes, it’s little wonder Kassovitz wound up bad-mouthing his own movie.
Emerging as a weird cross between Blade Runner (1982), The Transporter (2002) and one of those Italian rip-offs of The Omen (1976), Babylon A.D. has promising ingredients (a genetically engineered babe messiah, pseudo-religious conspiracies, Michelle Yeoh as a kung fu kicking nun) that a Hong Kong or Euro exploitation movie would do crazy things with. Here, they’re presented in prosaic fashion as the film goes from one, dreary chase or fight sequence to another amidst East European locations that are believably squalid, but uninteresting. Like a lot of science fiction, this deals with present anxieties in the guise of future shock.
Its characters re-enact the immigrant experience, joining hundreds who brave human traffickers, disease, violence and perilous journeys to reach an America portrayed the way these people see it: vast, garish and oppressive. However, the need to keep the action fast and furious curtails what should be the core story: Aurora being gradually exposed to vast human suffering and how that motivates her to seize her destiny. When she tries to help drowning immigrants board a submarine, Toorop just knocks her out cold. So much for that. Mélanie Thierry continues to develop as an interesting actress, doing a lot with a little, while Michelle Yeoh endures Toorop’s insults and busts some martial arts moves, before the plot casts her aside like old rope.
The film seems locked in a struggle between a more interesting apocalyptic sci-fi thriller and your typical Vin Diesel action movie. The gravel-voiced one plays his usual anti-social thug, whose kill or be killed ethos supposedly mellows throughout the movie, although that is far from convincing. As in Pitch Black (2000) and XXX (2001), we’re meant to admire his badass attitude, but Diesel is so keen on tough guy posturing he fails to give one, convincing line reading. Which renders dialogue like: “You need two things to live in this world. Your word and your balls. Unlike you I have both” or the moment he tells Michelle Yeoh’s kindly nun “don’t fuck with me”, obnoxious and silly. A snowmobile chase is well-staged, though confuses with its participants hidden behind masks, and the last twenty minutes bring a chaotic onslaught of mad ideas amidst bullets and explosions. Still, chalk this up as a missed opportunity, although it hurts less to watch than it must have for Mathieu Kassovitz to make.
French writer, director and actor. As writer and director, he made his biggest impact with electrifying urban drama La Haine. Assassin(s) followed, a longer version of one of his short films, then he moved into the thriller/horror genre with The Crimson Rivers and Gothika, sci-fi with the doomed Babylon A.D and real life drama in Rebellion. As an actor, he's best known for being the "hero" in A Self-Made Hero and as the heroine's romantic interest in Amelie.
To me this seems like it was Kassovitz's try at creating his own Fifth Element, and it's a shame the end result falls flat on its face, with a really unappealing look to it. I also spotted a touch of the Empire Strikes Back about those snowbound scenes. Oh well, another missed opportunity for Euro-sci-fi.