Readers of a certain age might recall a time when Vin Diesel was poised to become the next major action star. He had a deep voice, and it was usually hard to understand what he was saying, and those are traits that people like in action stars. His head was composed entirely of curves, with no sharp angles, which made him aerodynamic. Best of all, he had made up the tough-guy name “Vin Diesel” for himself. This was crucial, as audiences will not accept an action star with a nerdy name. That’s why there has never been an action star named Sylvester, or Arnold, or Jean-Claude.
So yes, after “Pitch Black,” “The Fast and the Furious,” and “xXx,” there was a time when it looked like Vin Diesel was going to be huge. The time was 2002, and it lasted a couple minutes. Then he played a nanny in “The Pacifier,” coping with pet ducks and pooping toddlers, and it was all over.
In keeping with the theme of things being all over, Diesel went on to star in “Babylon A.D.,” a pointless and incomprehensible science-fiction adventure that hints at what “Children of Men” might have been if “Children of Men” had been directed by Michael Bay instead of Alfonso Cuarón and had starred a shaved ape instead of Clive Owen and had gone straight to the Syfy Channel instead of theaters. It’s set in the near future, where everything is bleak and gray and steely all the time, and where mercenaries played by Vin Diesel are no longer allowed in America and have to live in Russia. Diesel’s character is named Toorop. Yes, Toorop. Most of the time it sounds like “Turo,” like maybe it’s short for “Arturo,” but no. It’s Toorop. Sorry, movie, but that’s strike one.
Toorop, who lives in a squalid apartment in a squalid city and eats rabbit for dinner (squalidly, no doubt), is interrupted one night by a former employer’s goons. The employer’s name is Gorsky, and at first I thought he was wearing a hilariously large fake nose, and then I realized it’s just Gerard Depardieu. (Filmmakers working under tight budgetary constraints would do well to note that when a large-nosed character is called for, it is probably cheaper to cast Gerard Depardieu than it is to hire a makeup artist and create a prosthetic.) Gorsky has summoned Toorop via goon squad because he has a job for him. What, Gorsky can’t pick up a phone? Gorsky has to get all dramatic and send goons? That’s why people make fun of your nose, Gorsky, because you’re OBNOXIOUS.
What Gorsky needs is for Toorop to transport a young woman to New York City. (Why can’t Gorsky just have his precious goons do it??) Toorop points out that he, Toorop, is not allowed in the U.S. because of some past misdeeds — probably “A Man Apart” — and Gorsky gives him a passport that will do the trick. In The Future, they use bio-identification, so getting a fake “passport” means injecting a liquid into your neck that, I don’t know, disguises your retinas or changes your fingerprints or something. It’s just The Future, OK? “Babylon A.D.” doesn’t have time to explain everything (i.e., anything).
The girl in need of a chaperone to the Big Apple is Aurora (Melanie Thierry), an orphan who’s spent her life in a convent for Noelite nuns, the Noelites being a religion that this movie made up. Specifics aren’t given, but I assume they worship the playwright Noel Coward, which I endorse. Aurora is to be accompanied by Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), a nun who you may assume knows how to kick butt because she is played by Michelle Yeoh. Rebeka tells Toorop his job is to keep the girl safe from harm, and then she asks him not to swear. Toorop’s response:
“Don’t f*** with me, or I’ll leave you standing in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your a** to sell to get back here.”
Toorop is a charmer with the ladies!
Well, Toorop’s journey to America with Aurora and Sister Rebeka is packed with adventure, that’s for sure, what with a lot of people apparently wanting them all dead. Who? And why? And why does Aurora seem to exhibit strange psychic powers, and why is she maybe schizophrenic, and what happened to her parents, and why does Sister Rebeka have to go everywhere with her, and do the Noelites get along with the Oscar Wildeans or are they considered heretics? So many questions, so little time for the movie to answer them, as the movie is preoccupied with doing anything BUT answer questions. The movie thinks that it can build suspense and intrigue by simply not telling us anything. The movie thinks the definition of “mystery” is “the absence of information.” By the same reasoning, a blank piece of paper is also very mysterious, though at least a blank piece of paper doesn’t make you watch Vin Diesel and a couple of nuns flee from bad guys on snowmobiles.
Despite the movie’s best efforts not to tell us anything, we eventually learn that Aurora is pregnant! With twins, no less! This is miraculous because she has never had sexytimes. The Noelites created her in a lab 20 years ago and then figured out how to make her conceive automatically at a certain point, in the hopes that this amazing virgin birth would bring the Noelites more followers. For reals, that was their plan. The Noelites’ high priestess (Charlotte Rampling) is intent on having more followers than anyone else, just like on Twitter. I don’t know why Aurora had to come to the U.S. to give birth, but I assume it was so we could make a topical joke about “anchor babies.”
The movie occasionally gets tired of being cryptic and starts saying things matter-of-factly. It turns out this is worse. For example, there is the moment when the bad guys (whoever they are) have launched a weapon at Toorop. “It’s a missile linked to my passport!” he says, referring to the thing he injected into his neck. “How can you stop it??” asks Aurora. “Only by death!” he replies. Then he dies, which is very accommodating of him, but the bad guys, or possibly the good guys, bring him back to life, because this is a thing that can be done in The Future. They need to know what Aurora told him after he fell unconscious but before he died, and retrieving this information is as simple as hooking him up to a machine (The Future, etc.). “We’ll guide your memory with our computer!” explains the scientist. Of course you will, scientist in The Future. Of course you will.
You might have noticed that this movie sure has a lot of stinkin’ French people in it! That’s because it was based on a French novel, and directed by French person Mathieu Kassovitz, who I should point out is French. Kassovitz fought with the studio quite a bit during the production, and basically disavowed the film as it was released in theaters. The director’s cut is allegedly more coherent and sensible, though the only way I could know that for sure would be to watch it, which seems unlikely to occur.