"I learned something that day: you can't always walk away. Too bad it was the day I died." The sound of Vin Diesel's inimitable inflections uttering these words in the voiceover that opens Babylon A.D., and the image of a fiery explosion reflected in the actor's wide-open eye, seem to ally Mathieu Kassovitz's latest to that body of other films - Sunset Blvd (1950), Shallow Grave (1995) and I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed (2005) amongst them - where dead men really do tell tales.
Diesel's character Toorop, it would appear, is doomed from the very outset, in a film abounding in ominous predictions and apocalyptic visions - except that, being both science fiction and religious allegory, Babylon A.D. holds out at least two possible routes by which a miraculous resurrection might be engineered. How these two routes come together is where the film's greatest originality lies - which is just as well, given how derivative everything else in it proves.
Toorop is a mercenary, recruited by a former comrade (Depardieu, mercilessly hamming it up) to transport the mysterious Aurora (Thierry) and her protective escort Sister Rebeka Yeoh) from their isolated Mongolian convent, through the lawless zones of eastern Europe, and on (by submarine) to America where the Neolite church awaits her delivery. As this trinity must face together a series of perils in a hellish world, the hardened killer-for-hire begins to soften and soon finds himself faced with a choice on which the future of humanity may just depend.
If it is the ideas more than their execution that carry Babylon A.D. (based on Maurice G Dantec's 1999 novel 'Babylon Babies'), it is also hard to avoid the impression that we have been here many times before.
The sequences in the film's first half, where SF's normal modes of futurism seem to have given way to war-torn, refugee-strewn urban landscapes that could have come from any time in the last half century, would be refreshing were they not so similar to the grittily anarchic visions of Children Of Men (2006) - a film which showed similar interest in the re-emergence of messianic ideologies. New York, on the other hand, is a neon-lit merger of Blade Runner (1982) and The Fifth Element (1997) - again two films with a similar neo-theological subtext.
Sure the dramatic shift in production design from bullet-pocked dumpsites to shimmering metropolis makes for a neat contrast of the world's haves and have-nots, and the evolution of religion is a resonant issue in our secular, technology-driven age, but there is also something drearily second-hand about all this, so that viewers may well find themselves sharing Toorop's sense of world-weary ennui ("I'm tired, tired of it all").
Even the casting of Diesel as this killer whose gruff cynicism conceals a heart of gold makes the whole enterprise drift dangerously close towards being just another of The Chronicles Of Riddick (2004) - an impression not helped by the fact that Riddick's last outing also featured a sinister cult seeking to raise its profile.
Let's be clear here. Babylon A.D. is not terrible, but it is almost determinedly second-rank, from the cheesy tough-guy dialogue ("you listen to my one and only rule: don't fuck with me") to the set-pieces that feel like set-pieces. And while the plot is serviceable enough to keep the action moving, it is also cartoonishly preposterous.
By the end it is all too clear why everyone is after Aurora but it remains a complete mystery why Toorop is needed to transport her, especially given the well-demonstrated power and influence of the organisation that hires him. Of course, Diesel is always guaranteed to bring in the fanboy dollar but even fanboys need a little more than Diesel's mere presence to make a plot cohere, no matter how obligingly he blasts his way through it.
If Kassovitz took the film-going world by the throat with his arresting debut La Haine (1995), of late he has been floundering in by-numbers projects that seem all too cynically designed to ape Hollywood homogeneity (The Crimson Rivers, Gothika), and in the process he has lost his soul. How ironic, then, that the main theme of Babylon A.D. should be redemption - redemption of a fallen man and a damaged world. Perhaps the planet can be saved, but Kassovitz's career is still hanging in the balance. His latest film may turn out to be a tale told by the living but it still carries something of a corpse-like stench about it.
In a nutshell: The future looks a lot like the past (or at least like past movies) in this derivative SF action flick.
By Anton Bitel