What do you say about a movie no one likes or wants to see? Mathieu Kassovitz's Babylon A.D. (2008) has been roundly trounced by American critics and pretty much ignored by the public at the box-office; it might have had some kind of second life as a DVD cult favorite, only the director himself is going around loudly proclaiming against the picture--apparently 20th Century Fox clashed with the man and took control away from him. "I had something much better in my hands," Kassovitz said, "but I just wasn't allowed to work."
This from the man who won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for La Haine (Hate, 2005), an intense little melodrama about a lost gun and race riots in the French suburbs (to be fair, he also directed Halle Berry's hysterically rendered 2003 thriller Gothika). Kassovitz strove for five years to bring Maurice Georges Dantec's science-fiction novel to the big screen; one of the reasons he was attracted to the book was because of Dantec's narrative conceit: one wasn't sure what the whole thing was about, as one was often confined to one person's viewpoint (doesn't help--or it does, depending on how you look at it--that the view expressed was at times disjointed, even schizophrenic). One thinks of Philip K. Dick's fiction, which mastered the art of telling story through multiple perspectives, some of them decidedly schizophrenic--but that's a topic for another article.
Fox trimmed Kassovitz's movie down to ninety minutes (he claims over fifteen minutes were deleted, rumors put it more at seventy (what was that again about multiple perspectives?)), leaving behind what the director describes as "pure violence and stupidity." "All the action scenes had a goal," Kassovitz claims. "They were supposed to be driven by either a metaphysical point of view or experience for the characters... instead parts of the movie are like a bad episode of '24.'"
If what he says is right, and I'm not claiming he's not, that must be an incredible seventy minutes (or fifteen, which is even more improbable); what survives onscreen doesn't give me much confidence in Kassovitz the action filmmaker. His idea of an action sequence is an undulating camera, with as much of the movement slashed out before and after and in between as to render the whole incomprehensible; you don't know how it got there, you don't know where it's going, you don't know why it's doing that in the first place--it's simply the director's idea of energy and cool. Any attempt at a "metaphysical point of view" I would imagine might be better served by sobriety and a stable tripod (the better to point out any unusual qualities; think David Cronenberg and the jawdropping impact he provoked from a camera simply sitting there and peering at a man pushing his arm into a pulsating vaginal opening in his belly to reach for a handgun--but hey, that's me; what can I say except that I think it makes more sense (is it a coincidence that Cronenberg did possibly the greatest Philip K. Dick film ever, Videodrome (1983) which isn't so much a direct adaptation as it is an inspired distillation of the Dickian sensibility?)).
The movie's plot--young girl pregnant with possibly the most important living thing in the world being escorted by armed men to a place of safety--has been mentioned more than once as resembling Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James novel Children of Men (2006); plotwise yes, I suppose, but watching this botched mess of a movie helps sharpen my appreciation of that earlier film more. Where Kassovitch has freedom of movement (or as free as Fox ever allowed him, which doesn't seem inconsiderable) and that very freedom has shackled him to the backwaters of confusion, Cuaron drives forward with camera shots of considerable complexity and duration. The effect is oppressive, claustrophobic even; one imagines the protagonists running a labyrinth of hallways and corridors and alleys, in a desperate bid for freedom. Which I thought was Cuaron's point: the future as a closed labyrinth from which we seek escape, a pointless, endless first-person shooter game from which we seek transcendence, or at least the next level (that's why Cuaron's camera in the film's final images floats through a tunnel--the film's theme encapsulated--to emerge in the wide open sea; it's fulfillment, at the very least a break from all that confined space).
I don't see anything remotely like that marriage of camerawork and theme in Babylon, about as denounced, orphaned, and abandoned a special-effects summer thriller as any I can think of in recent years. Perhaps Kassovitz can come out with an extended DVD version, make me eat my words; perhaps he can learn from this experience (and the experience of making Gothika), ditch Hollywood, go back to the small independent films that made his reputation; perhaps I in turn can undergo a lobotomy, electroshock therapy, and a heavy regimen of both Thorazine and Dilaudid to enable me to appreciate the movie. Whatever the case may be, I'm not holding my breath in anticipation.
(First published in Businessworld, 9.5.08)