Perhaps I'll be reamed for saying it, but I am absolutely flabbergasted by the vitriolic hatred that's met Mathieu Kassovitz's Babylon A.D. (as of right now, 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, 26 at Metacritic), and the oft-repeated cry that it's "confusing". It could be that I'm just a fucking genius with a supernatural ability to derive hidden meaning out of films; maybe most people expected that they could go to see a Vin Diesel picture and just turn off their brains; maybe I just saw a different version than everybody else. Because for my money, Babylon A.D. is absolutely the best science-fiction film since Sunshine last summer, and it wouldn't take very many changes to the story to upgrade that to "since Children of Men". This despite the protestations of director Mathieu Kassovitz, who's disowned the American cut (some 15 minutes shorter than the European version that he is apparently quite happy with, with a different ending), calling it "pure violence and stupidity". Which it might well be, compared to his original vision - a much more geopolitically laden vision, by all accounts - but I can only wonder if Kassovitz has ever seen a movie like, I don't know, Transformers. Probably not; if Babylon A.D. in its current guise makes him angry, Michael Bay's film would probably have given him a massive aneurysm.

Admittedly, there's a lot to not love about the film:* it's much too shallow, for starters, skipping past seemingly dozens of notable ideas that beg for some fleshing out. The exact nature of the MacGuffin is wildly unclear - apparently, a young woman (Mรฉlanie Thierry) with psychic and telekinetic powers, but where the hell they're coming from is a thread dropped entirely (the plot follows the efforts of a merc named Toorop (Diesel) to smuggle her out of central Asia to America, for increasingly murky reasons). The ending is a wreck - the last two scenes in particular, but really the whole last act doesn't make much sense. The action sequences suffer from tremendously confused editing - in a summer where it's become quite the vogue to attack choppy editing in fighting scenes, I think Babylon A.D. easily takes the prize for worst fight cinematography of the year (for that matter, I can't help but think that this wasn't supposed to be an action movie at all). These are all things that could potentially be fixed in the longer cut, although 15 minutes isn't all that much and the story needs a lot of breathing room. What mere editing could never fix, of course, is Vin Diesel, who is not and I think cannot be a good actor, and while this script does not demand much of him, he is still not capable of much other than monotonously delivering lines and looking tough.

Leave all that aside, and what you've got is one of the most thoughtfully designed post-apocalypse futures put on film in years. It's true enough that the film cribs a lot from Children of Men and Blade Runner, but if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the very best. Besides, the film also cribs what I'd argue was just about the strongest element of Children of Men: it presents its vision of the future without comment, letting the people go about their business naturally and assuming that we can keep up with it. So whereas a less self-assured film might have made a big deal about how a wealthy mercenary drives around in an armored truck with night-vision windows, Babylon A.D. simply places those details in front of us and expects that we're smart enough to know why a man in an anarchic wasteland might value such things. I've picked that example mostly at random; but the film is awash with similar nuggets of clever details that just appear, sans fanfare.

Shot by Luc Besson's regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, the film also boasts an extremely grainy, mostly desaturated look that is also more than a bit similar to Children of Men - and to Minority Report, as well - but which is still effective for the story being told, and much rougher than its precedents. I think it's the grain; frankly, I can't recall the last time that there was a movie made on American dollars with such graininess. It works to make the squalor that much more squalid, and generally underline the sense that this is not a world that any of us would particularly like to live in. Which I think fits into the point is that this is the world we're going to live in if we don't start changing things, but except for a couple of lines of of dialogue, that part of the film ended up on the cutting room floor, or in Europe.

13 years ago, Kassovitz directed La haine, one of the most celebrated French movies of the past three decades, which I haven't seen. His last film as director, and his American debut, was 2003's Gothika, which I have; now that was a film worthy of all the bile flung towards it. So I can't really say that Babylon A.D. is any kind of sample of his filmmaking talents, other than that I am certain it's not the worst thing he's capable of. It's far from perfect - and who knows how much of that is the fault of the studio - but even its debased form it's nothing to cause the director vast amounts of shame. Technically, it's pretty well done through, with some very fine camera angles and shots throughout, and occasionally a shot good enough to take your breath away (one opens the film; another one that springs to mind is a crane shot that reveals a host of refugees stumbling across the frozen Bering Strait). It's not his fault that 20th Century Fox required his moody study of humanity's doomed future be crammed full of action, although I wonder if it's his fault that the action is precisely that part of the film which looks the worst. At any rate, Babylon A.D. deserves much more than the spanking it got from the studio (that late-August release date) and the world at large.

6/10