Categories
3 Stars Movies

1917 is not the first single-take movie, but it’s one of the best

Every review or casual comment about 1917, from pan to praise, will all begin with the same undeniable fact: it’s an astounding technical achievement. While far from the first apparent single-take feature-length film, it’s certainly one of the most seamless. Better, the feat is partially insulated from charges of gimmickry in that the structure derives directly from the urgency of the plot. There’s an essay waiting to be written about how both Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan approached the venerable war film genre in the 21st Century: by experimenting with structure and time.

A couple things took me out of the experience:

  1. The very intrusive score. Often so overbearing that I suspected the filmmakers doubted the power of their imagery. (a particular example being Schofield’s mad run across the battlefield being accompanied by a pounding rock score, when surely the shells, screaming, and guns would have been more effective)
  2. Sentimental war movie cliches, most notably coming across a pretty young woman in the middle of a battlefield.
  3. Casting movie stars as the various superiors the soldiers encounter throughout the film has some deleterious effects: it’s distracting when the two leads are relative unknowns, it calls attention to an episodic structure, and it relies too much on melodramatic camera reveals (holding the lens on Mark Strong’s boot for so long seemed a bit rich).
  4. An unimaginative, unevocative title. These are not perfect analogies, but imagine if Platoon had been titled 1967, or if M*A*S*H had been 1951.
Categories
2 Stars Movies

A Man Alone: Babylon A.D.

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.

Babylon A.D.
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

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.

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