Desperate for something—anything—worthwhile to say about the inert lump of postapocalyptic tedium that is Babylon A.D., film critics the world round have taken to comparing it unfavorably with Alfonso Cuaron's crazily overrated 2006 futuristic thriller Children of Men.
Different as they are in tone and execution (Children of Men is an art-house number chockablock with topflight acting talent like Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, Babylon A.D. is a Vin Diesel vehicle full of ho-hum pyrotechnics and CGI-enhanced derring-do), they've indeed got more in common than art direction conforming to industry standards set by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner over a quarter century ago.
The protagonist of Children of Men (Clive Owen) is a disaffected bureaucrat coerced by a shadowy resistance group into smuggling a young pregnant woman out of a totalitarian England torn by terrorism and civil conflict, while his counterpart in Babylon A.D. (Diesel) is a disaffected mercenary manipulated by a shadowy religious order into smuggling a young pregnant woman out of a totalitarian Europe torn by terrorism and civil conflict. In Children of Men the expectant party is the first woman on earth to conceive a child in decades; in Babylon A.D. she's carrying genetically enhanced twins who represent some kind of messianic second chance for humankind. In both films, the equation of the mother-to-be with the Virgin Mary is driven home with the subtlety of a railroad spike to the forehead.
Underlying these parallels, however, is another, more interesting one that's attracted little notice. Both films are adapted from polemical novels written by Christian conservatives whose intended messages were erased in the process of translation from page to screen.
The source for Children of Men is a 1992 novel of the same name by British writer P.D. James, who took her title from a line in Psalm 90: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men." A devout Anglican, James has referred to her book as a "Christian fable," and its religious message is blunt enough to make C.S. Lewis's Narnia series look like so many gnostic mystery texts. In James's hands the global infertility plague is both a divine punishment for Western moral decay and an allegory for the evils of sex as recreation. Lest the reader miss her intended slap at the secular "culture of death," she tips her hand early in chapter one: "Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and became more explicit but less and less in the West we made love and bred children. It seemed at the time a welcome development in a world grossly polluted by over-population."
By the time Cuaron and his four cowriters were done with it, James's pointed conservative allegory had been reduced to a pabulum of vague left-liberal pieties. The infertility plague was redefined as payback for human sins against the environment and then greatly deemphasized in favor of melodrama about the persecution of illegal immigrants by a British police state. Here Cuaron and company departed from both the novel and common sense: in a rapidly depopulating world, nations would logically be competing for immigrants. In James's version the government has implemented a more pragmatic policy of exploiting foreign laborers, then kicking them out at the age of 60.
Oddly, the makeover imposed on James's novel went unremarked upon even by critics who claimed to prefer it to the movie. One observer who did notice was Watergate conspirator-turned-evangelist Charles Colson, who complained on his blog that "it's just like somebody set out to make a movie of Adam Smith's famous The Wealth of Nations and wound up making instead Karl Marx's Das Kapital."
The backstory of Babylon A.D. is more convoluted. The film is based on Babylon Babies, a 2001 cyberpunk novel by Maurice G. Dantec, a Frenchman who now lives in Montreal, having renounced France as a sinkhole of secularism and socialism too decadent to protect itself from slow-motion takeover by Islamic immigrants. A middle-aged former punk rocker who still dresses the part, Dantec likes to tout his affinity with such countercultural heavyweights as Nietzsche, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and William S. Burroughs. None of this, he claims, is incompatible with his fervent Roman Catholicism or his ultra-right-wing political beliefs, which he terms conservative but his critics call protofascist and worse. It's a contortionist act that only a French intellectual would even try to get away with, and back in his homeland it's won him a cult following.
The 650-page Babylon Babies is pretty much a mess. Its techno-thriller plot is essentially a longer version of the violent road trip depicted in the film, though progress in the book is continually impeded by undigested lumps of exposition about neurochemistry, schizophrenia, cyborg politics, shamanistic drug use, and umpteen other sexy, cyber-compatible subjects. A reader unaware of the ideological bees buzzing in Dantec's bonnet could easily come away from it none the wiser, especially since tonally the novel adheres to the flashy, adolescent nihilism common to most so-called cyberpunk fiction. (The limerick aside, is there a literary mode less suited to the development of ethical and political themes?) But if you know what to look for, the Dantec worldview peeps out between the crowded lines—especially his obsession with tribalism and sectarianism as Eastern evils against which the Occident must take a stand or be destroyed.
The signal-to-noise ratio of the novel being as low as it is, it's no surprise the movie turned out to be a mindless blob of cineplex fodder whose rock-bottom worst moments coincide with its flirtations with Deeper Meaning. There's an entertaining irony in that director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, Gothika) undertook his five-year project of adapting Dantec's novel as a labor of love, out of admiration for its intellectual content. Though Kassovitz caused a minor media sensation last week by repudiating his own film on the eve of its release, he did so in terms that raise serious doubts that he was ever on Dantec's wavelength in the first place. "The movie," he complained to an interviewer from AMC's Sci-Fi Scanner blog, "is supposed to teach us that the education of our children will mean the future of our planet"—pretty much the same moral Cuaron and company imposed on Children of Men.
Perhaps one day our cultural industries—committed as they are to diversity—will allow the forces of reaction their own dystopian entertainments unmodified. It'll be interesting to see what becomes of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, currently under development as a vehicle for Angelina Jolie.v
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