A Man Alone: Babylon A.D.

Babylon A.D. movie poster


Vin Diesel has made some­thing of a spe­cialty in dystopian sci­ence fic­tion movies pos­sessed of aston­ish­ing visu­als but hor­rif­i­cally bad scripts (I’m look­ing at you, Pitch Black and The Chron­i­cles of Rid­dick). Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been type­cast as a weary but action-ready man of the future? Math­ieu Kassovitz’s Baby­lon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an inter­na­tional feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeu­vre, but also very much a direct descen­dent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Ele­ment. The pres­ence of Michelle Yeoh promises mar­tial arts ass­kick­ing that never really mate­ri­al­izes, and the pro­ceed­ings are given a mea­sure of class by Ger­ard Depar­dieu and Char­lotte Rampling.

Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.The gog­gles… they do nothing!

The movie pre­dicts an espe­cially bleak future for Europe, wracked by per­pet­ual war and ter­ror attacks that leave the urban land­scape look­ing like Chech­nya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluc­tant mer­ce­nary war­rior, some­thing like a mas­ter­less ronin from old samu­rai movies. I was pre­pared to like his char­ac­ter until he shoots a dis­armed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip. I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 min­utes lapses before the hero finally under­takes his task: to escort the genet­i­cally engi­neered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn waste­lands of “New Ser­bia” to New York. The per­sis­tent tone of a-man-alone cyn­i­cism is some­thing else Baby­lon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, espe­cially the Trans­porter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.

Michelle Yeoh and Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.

Some of the gen­uinely incred­i­ble shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the pro­mo­tional stills:

  • The open­ing sequence is an unbro­ken shot zoom­ing straight down on planet Earth, hom­ing in on Man­hat­tan and into Diesel’s eyeball
  • A 270-degree cam­era move incor­po­rat­ing a CGI heli­copter and an ancient con­vent carved into a stone cliff
  • An estab­lish­ing shot of an unspec­i­fied Russ­ian city built around a giant crater, its ori­gins unex­plained (but a likely allu­sion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Kat­suhiro Otomo’s Akira)
  • The entire island of Man­hat­tan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and com­pleted Free­dom Towers

The Manhattan of the Future Babylon A.D.The Free­dom Tow­ers dom­i­nate the Man­hat­tan of the future

Movies like Baby­lon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally suc­cumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father sud­denly mate­ri­al­izes, appar­ently solely to pro­vide a mas­sive info­dump of expo­si­tion. The long, com­pli­cated back­story was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the prod­uct of an incor­po­rated reli­gion whose CEO and High Priest­ess (Char­lotte Ram­pling) hopes to man­u­fac­ture a mirac­u­lous vir­gin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only cre­ates frus­tra­tion and con­fu­sion, and lit­tle emo­tional response.

Offi­cial movie site: www.babylonadmovie.com

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race movie poster


Death Race evi­dences a cyn­i­cal, shal­low, indis­crim­i­nate out­rage at… every­thing. In this future dystopia, the U.S. econ­omy col­lapsed in 2012, fol­lowed by soar­ing unem­ploy­ment, crime, and incar­cer­a­tion. Echo­ing Roller­ball and Run­ning Man, pro­fes­sional sport has merged with the penal sys­tem, pro­vid­ing both tele­vised enter­tain­ment and a jus­tice sys­tem in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key inci­dent that illus­trates the extent of this fallen soci­ety, the gov­ern­ment man­u­fac­tures a riot by shut­ting down a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant and lay­ing off all its work­ers. The incited riot­ers make con­ve­nient scape­goats for society’s short­com­ings, ulti­mately ben­e­fit­ting the gov­ern­ment. One of these inno­cent blue-collar labor­ers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a for­mer crook try­ing to make an hon­est liv­ing as a fam­ily man. Like his char­ac­ter Frank in the Trans­porter films, his crim­i­nal forte was dri­ving. Dri­ving very fast. Unjustly impris­oned at Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Franken­stein, a masked fic­ti­tious racer in the tit­u­lar Death Race. As with pro­fes­sional wrest­ing vil­lains and the Yan­kees, Franken­stein is a vil­lain per­fectly designed for the pub­lic to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Franken­stein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death RaceThis ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was orig­i­nally con­ceived as a higher-budgeted vehi­cle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was grad­u­ally down­graded to this video game pas­tiche helmed by Paul W.S. Ander­son. It’s a dubi­ous choice of source mate­r­ial, con­sid­er­ing that the orig­i­nal Death Race 2000 (1975), star­ring David Car­ra­dine and Sylvester Stal­lone, is one of the lesser-known apoc­a­lyp­tic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soy­lent Green, Roller­ball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade ear­lier. Car­ra­dine makes a voice cameo as the pre­vi­ous bearer of the Franken­stein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above point­ing out the crush­ingly obvi­ous, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist enter­tain­ments built upon bru­tal­ity, sex­ism, and shaky moral ambiva­lence. The osten­si­bly hell­ish Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary actu­ally appears rather chaste and peace­ful, mak­ing the sce­nario less dis­taste­ful to audi­ences. Rape is never a worry, and racially moti­vated con­flict is only faintly alluded to by the pres­ence of eth­nic gangs (white suprema­cists are obliquely referred to as “The Broth­er­hood”). The dri­vers’ copi­lots are “Nav­i­ga­tors” recruited from the neigh­bor­ing women’s prison. These stun­ning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to tit­il­late by the War­den (Joan Allen), in ser­vice of greater rat­ings. Speak­ing of, Ander­son misses an oppor­tu­nity to sat­i­rize tele­vised sport­ing events as well as The Wachowski Broth­ers’ Speed Racer or even Dodge­ball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death RaceGrav­i­tas or Botox?

Death Race is mind­lessly enter­tain­ing enough, until we’re asked to for­give unre­pen­tant mur­derer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gib­son) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is con­fused: given an unjust prison sys­tem that exploits the guilty and inno­cent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty pris­on­ers like Machine Gun Joe are so plen­ti­ful, why does the war­den have to go to the bother of fram­ing inno­cent peo­ple in the first place?

Statham sup­plies his usual per­sona of buff, terse, reluc­tant hero who has no time for girls (seri­ously, what is up with that? Trans­porter 2 even flirts with the notion his char­ac­ter Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre mis­cast­ing of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inex­pres­sive (lit­er­ally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the crim­i­nal waste of the pow­er­fully impos­ing Ian McShane. He was noth­ing less than awe­some in Dead­wood, bring­ing to life a crime lord more inter­est­ing than even Tony Soprano. McShane also ele­vated the short-lived TV series Kings, play­ing his part like he was in Shake­speare while every­one else was trapped in an ele­men­tary school play. But even he can’t do any­thing to res­cue this mess.

Offi­cial movie site: www.deathracemovie.net

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.