Paramount Home Video
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adrianna Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Clifton Collins Jr.
"Kill me… but save my brother. He did nothing… nothing! Save my brother… he did nothing."
As we've stretched to the heavens to learn more about the world around us, human society has never seemed more immense than it does in the 21st century. Oddly enough, with the rise of global communication – particularly the internet – people have never seemed more intimately connected. Anyone can reach out and instantly contact any other person on the planet anytime they desire. But somehow humans are still separated by great chasms that no amount of technology can ever bridge. "Babel", the most recent film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, immediately establishes it's concern with our lack of connections in this era of connectivity. The good thing about the film is its unique examination of how this phenomenon weaves itself among people of many different cultures and classes. The bad thing is the film is often a frustrating and distracted affair with a disappointing lack of focus.
The story follows four plotlines and a group of characters that are effected by the accidental shooting of an American tourist in Morocco. Two young boys (Boubker Ait and Said Tarchani) harmlessly fire a rifle across the desert. A married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) is hurled into chaos when the bullet strikes their tour bus and lodges in her neck. The couple's two children are left in the care of their immigrant housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) who brings the kids to a wedding in Mexico. Finally, a deaf, Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) is trapped in her own depression by her inability to find love in Tokyo. While the last of these plotlines is initially disconnected and disorienting, it plays into the tapestry of "Babel" as the film echoes more recent productions like "Crash" and "Syrianna".
Unfortunately, the film is a hit or miss affair that failed to resonate with me. I would've preferred to see any of the storylines removed and placed into their own film. As a whole, they failed to work together and every time I became invested in one, I was suddenly thrown into another. All of the actors turn in award caliber performances, but it's never enough to cover up the weaknesses in the script. When the camera focused on Pitt, Blanchett and the Moroccan people, I was riveted. However, I slumped back in my seat anytime the camera would suddenly focus on the well-intentioned nanny and the Japanese teen who's obsessed with being naked. To top it all off, the film briefly examines US border practices for a scant, five minutes as the housekeeper tries to reenter the country with the white children. This results in a high speed chase that ends in the most unnecessary, anti-climactic fashion imaginable. Even more difficult to understand is the decisions to avoid examining the political struggle occurring between the US and Morocco (even though the conflict is constantly referred to), the absence of a subplot revolving around the US border patrol officer (an excellent Clifton Collins Jr.) or the Japanese girl's father (Koji Yakusho), and the filmmaker's seemingly fleeting interest in the selfless, Moroccan man (Mustapha Amhita) who works so hard at keeping Blanchett alive. Luckily, everything fell together in the end, but the second act had lost my attention long before the story wrapped up.
Should "Babel" be up for Best Picture? No… I can easily think of ten other films that are more fitting. Should its cast members be nominated? Sure… they do a great job with the material they're handed. My biggest problem with the film was the director… "21 Grams" stunned me and I was hoping for another experience that would shake me to my core. Instead, I got a nice character study with vignettes that failed to flow together as a whole. It's difficult to love so many performances and still have an overwhelming distaste for a movie… but there it is.
The video is a shaky, grainy storm across continents that looks unexpectedly beautiful on this Blu-ray disc. Your enjoyment of the video presentation won't come down to the solid, technical quality of the MPEG-2 codec, but to whether the director's choices and style of cinematography bother you. For the most part, the movie is centered around deserts, whether Moroccan or Mexican, and there's never a moment where the video seems soft or losses its sharpness. Even when the palette shifts from orange hues to blue overtones anytime it switches to Japan, the tone remains cohesive and I was happy to see that none of the transitions felt jarring. I never detected a hint of source noise and facial details, skin, and stubble are extremely impressive. You may not think this kind of movie would be a showcase of the format, but there are so many wide-lensed city shots, landscapes, and village views, that you can't help but be impressed by the high resolution results. Pebbles on the ground, grains of sand lifting into the wind, neon stretches into the Tokyo skyline, and linking shots feel as if they belong in an art gallery. The HD DVD and the Blu-ray presentations are practically identical and there's only the tiniest of boost in sharpness on the Blu-ray edition. On the flip side, the HD DVD images seem smoother and more pleasing to the eye. Again though, this is only when you pause individual scenes and compare the two versions side by side. Even then, it was nearly impossible to catch and was only visible in scenes in the Moroccan desert when stone and bush detail were at the front of the frame.
The audio is a bit disappointing, but again this can be attributed to the director and the tone he establishes rather than the quality of the surround track. I never have a problem with a movie being quiet and more subdued, but I don't understand the unmistakable absence of a well-defined, ambient soundscape. The deserts, in particular, should be home to a host of environmental noises other than wind and footsteps in the sand. For such a visually, earthy film, I was expecting a more drastic, living canvas when the camera moved outdoors. I never found my ears fooled by the rear channels and, at one point, I walked over and leaned against the speaker to make sure they were working properly. The HD DVD audio package is superior on this count, but the differences only amount to a higher stability in the bass and a lower tone to dialogue. Blu-ray users shouldn't notice a major difference.
There are no supplements to speak of, other than the trailer for the film, presented in 1080p. I was really hoping for interviews and commentaries where specific choices and themes could be explained and explored. For a movie trying to garner attention from the public before Oscar Night, I was sad to see such a barebones release.
In the end, if you're a fan of "Crash", you'll find "Babel" is missing a lot of the things that helped that Best Picture, masterpiece impact so many people. If you fell in love with the complicated, political examinations in "Syrianna", you'll feel this movie avoids some very intriguing opportunities. All in all though, this is another cinematic experience that moviegoers should at least sample. The excellent performances are worth your time and "Babel" raises enough interesting questions to spark a good conversation… whether you end up enjoying the film or not.