I did see Babel this weekend, with great solemnity. I must say that the reviews I read were right on the mark: the film certainly does, in A. O. Scott’s words, “belong to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — “Crash” is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.” The movie’s poster clearly indicates this, and most moviegoers will know what they’re in for early on: the actions shifts between four story lines, which take place on four continents on an skewed timeline. These lines do have points of intersection, but we don’t see them on-screen; the connections are indicated by key lines and scenes, but the characters do not meet.
It’s apparent that the filmmakers, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Writing Guillermo, have a message and theme they’d like to share, in addition to wowing us with their technical skills (which are considerable, although not to my taste). The message, to simplify it, is one of connection and shared experience overcoming linguistic and cultural boundaries. It is this effort that leads Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir to write:
the risk that “Babel” takes, in laboriously and lovingly connecting the private tragedies of four families in four different countries, is turning that observation, which may be lovely as a momentary flash of insight, into a stoned college freshman’s profound theory about the universe. Tremendous resources have been expended here so that Cate Blanchett can lie on a dirt floor and moan, while we ponder why we can’t all get along, and whether we aren’t all the same under the skin.
This commendable piece of writing captures my reaction to Babel perfectly — bluntly, is that all? As the credits rolled, I couldn’t believe that so little had been done with the film’s individual stories and their potential. Plenty of things had happened on the screen, and many of them were very moving in isolation, but the movie as a whole carried very little force. Granted, movies should not be judged by whether they communicate profound insights and ideas, but Babel is unique in that it sets four deeply interesting stories, and a handful of promising characters, in a film that drips with political and cultural ambition. It’s failure is, therefore, particularly lamentable.