I learned something that day. Too bad it was the day I died.
— Toorop (Vin Diesel)
“Save the planet,” says Toorop (Vin Diesel). “Whenever I read that bumper sticker I had to laugh.” This because, Babylon A.D. soon reveals, the planet is pretty much unsalvageable. Though it’s hard to tell when the film is set, it posits a dystopia sometime after 2017, in which mercenaries like Toorop measure their moral worth against terrorists, whom they consider unprincipled, if well financed, scum.
Such self-serving measurements are conducted against a backdrop of extreme class disparity. While regular citizens live in squalor, power-holders — say, the Russian gangster Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu), or the High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) — appear to be doing okay, with efficient transportation, hefty security guards and state-of-the-art weapons, not to mention lots of money. As expected, their depravity and avarice are highly visible: Depardieu’s nose is even larger and more misshapen than usual, the with an even larger, more misshapen nose than usual, the High Priestess is introduced getting a less egregious version of the beauty treatment endured by Katherine Helmond in Brazil.
Toorop, by contrast, is all business, first appearing as he resists pickup by a less philosophically fit fellow fighter (“I thought you were in Sudan killing babies!”) by blowing his head off. Since Gorsky has sent this inevitably dead man, Toorop knows money’s involved, and so he follows up. The mission — transporting beautiful virgin Aurora (Mélanie Theirry) from a Mongolian monastery through Eastern Europe to NYC — pays well and includes a new identity (a fake “passport” injected into the neck) for Toorop, so he can return to the States and retire. Gorsky makes the usual threats (“Cross me and you’ll have no place to hide anymore”), as does Toorop (“Goes both ways”), but they strike the deal and soon Toorop’s road trip is underway.
The general incoherence of this journey reflects and reinforces that of the film, which has been essentially disowned by director Mathieu Kassovitz as “pure violence and stupidity.” While the basic Children of Men-ish thematics (people smuggling, the end of nations, the intersections of religion, biological warfare, and environmental devastation) might have been intriguing in the project’s early stages, such complexities have long since been reduced to PG-13 car chases, shoot-outs, and generally unconvincing special effects.
Unfortunately this is the second such descent into American summertime pap for Diesel’s costar, Michelle Yeoh (see: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor). As Sister Rebeka, Aurora’s guardian, she predictably eschews one of Toorop’s guns (“I can defend myself”) until she doesn’t, at which point she proves to be an expert shot as well as martial artist. Her skills are mostly beside the point — not that this is precisely clear — as Toorop perceives and treats her as he treats everyone else, with disrespect and distrust (“Don’t fuck with me,” he says on meeting her in the snow outside the monastery, “or I’ll leave you in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your ass to sell to get back here to your perfect world”).
He regards the pale-complexioned girl with similar conduct, though you know she’s special because she makes her entrance accompanied by a heavenly female chorus and soft-filtered light. “Are you a killer, Mr. Toorop?”, she asks her designated escort. He squints and cocks his head and grinds into dismissive mode: “I’m just the delivery boy, you’re just a package.” Sister Rebeka strikes a pose, instructing her charge not to talk to this cretin, but the relationship — chaste thought vaguely lustful — is already in motion. (And surely, it is only exacerbated when she spots what he’s got in his trunk: loads of weapons and ammo, because, he smiles charmingly, “You can never have enough firepower.”)
The episodic structure of their travel doesn’t build that relationship so much as it ordains it. Toorop learns that Aurora is the child of two competing ideas, embodied by that dogmatic High Priestess and by a brilliant cyborg-making scientist, Darquandier (Lambert Wilson). Both sides send thugs to retrieve the girl, who not only spoke 19 languages at age two and has ooky premonitions like Agatha in Minority Report, but is also “carrying” a precious cargo; Toorop suspects it’s a biological weapon, though it might also be a virginal surprise.
The film, based on Maurice G. Dantec’s lengthy sci-fi novel, Babylon Babies, does include a brief mention of the changes in conception and identification that afflict this jumbled world. Since animal species have become extinct, Toorop notes, they have been replaced by “second generation clones, copies of copies.” How this is bad or what the technologies involve is not explained, but the fact that Aurora incarnates some extreme other possibility — be it “light” or darkness, miraculous birth or genocide — makes her one more “mother of the future” as men tend to imagine such creatures. This is tedious, certainly, and underscores the movie’s moldiness along with its messiness. But when the final scene reveals a twist, that Aurora is replaced in this capacity by Vin Diesel (who utters a caution lifted directly from the end of The Terminator), it’s hard not to feel afraid.