One of the handful of films deemed extra special in 2006, Babel had lofty intentions, a lot of hype and plenty of Oscar nominations. And yet, while the film was well directed and very well acted, it falls well short of its reputation. In fact, Babel fails to create a real impact, unless you count the utter depression one experiences while watching it.
Still, the film has lots of fans willing to call it one of the best of 2006. Those folks will be happy to add Babel: 2-disc Collector’s Edition to their own collections. That is, unless they already picked up the single-disc version released back in February. Is this double-dip good enough to say, “out with the old, in with the new?” Read on to find out.
Babel is one of those films that tells a handful of seemingly somewhat separate stories and attempts to tie them all together into one powerful narrative. It’s probably about the interconnected nature of humanity — mutual dependence despite impassible language barriers. I imagine director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams) would like you to decide what it means for yourself, though he does reveal his own intentions in the included making-of documentary.
The story begins with an accident that sets off a chain of events affecting four groups of people, in Morocco, Japan, Mexico and America. Essentially, there are four separate narratives. First you have the American couple, one of whom is shot while they’re on “vacation” in Morocco. Miles from anywhere useful, the couple rush to the nearest back-desert village for help. Second, we have the two Moroccan boys responsible for the shooting, which is misinterpreted by the authorities as an act of terrorism. The third narrative is about a nanny who illegally crosses into Mexico with the two American children — whose parents are busy in Morocco — in her care. The fourth, and final, story is about a rebellious Japanse girl who’s deaf and mute, and her father who’s being sought by the Tokyo police for supplying a rifle to a guy he knew in Morocco.
While they’re separated by thousands of kilometres and daunting culture differences, each of these groups is united, not only by plot, but more importantly by the shared experience of being lost in unfamiliar territory, whether it’s geographical, linguistic or emotional.
The intended message is supposed to be powerful. It’s certainly helped by the film’s talented ensemble cast, which ranges from uber-famous Brad Pitt (Fight Club) to well-knowns like Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) and Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries), to a whole lot of people who’ve never acted in any film before. It’s an incredibly difficult balance, having a few incredibly recognizable faces amidst a crowd of unknowns when they’re all given relatively equal weight. It helps that Pitt, Blanchett and Bernal give strong performances, which lead our minds away from their star personas. It also helps that the “unknowns,” which include actors famous only in foreign territory, turn in fine performances of their own.
So the film is well-acted. It’s also beautifully directed, shot and edited, and accompanied by an Oscar-winning score by Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain). There’s no disputing Babel‘s incredible production values, but I’m fully prepared to reject the execution of its message.
Here’s what bugs me about Babel. The film jumps around the globe for no good reason. Why does the story have to be spread so far apart? Not to find language barriers. They could have done that in any number of individual cities of the world. But no, the filmmakers, riding on the success of Iñárritu’s 21 Grams and less-so Amores Perros, and likely having plenty of studio resources at their disposal, decided to take it global. Imagine for a minute that Babel wasn’t about depressing and heartbreaking events, but instead told a message of interconnectedness through good fortune and heartwarming acts of kindness. It would be the cheesiest thing you’ve seen since AT&T’s “reach out and touch someone” campaign. So why are we supposed to buy this stuff just because it’s miserable?
Babel is like the glossy, two-hour antithesis of a 30-second cheese-ball TV ad. If that’s your cup of tea, read on to learn whether this Collector’s Edition is worth your money.
Babel: Collector’s Edition is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, preserving the aspect ratio of its original theatrical presentation. This appears to be the same transfer from the single disc release, but that’s not a problem since it already did a great job with Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography. Colours are rich and accurate, the picture is sharp and detailed, and there are no problems with some of the more jarring edits and handheld shots. All told, it’s an excellent transfer.
Main audio is English in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it’s as good as the video. Babel offers a rich listening experience, with its Oscar-winning score, emotionally charged dialogue and creative sound effects. Of particular interest is the filmmakers’ handling of the experience of a deaf-mute person in a loud, busy city like Tokyo. They play around with the levels of the score and ambient sound to better communicate what it’s like for the girl. It’s effective for her character, but also aurally interesting for the viewer. Overall, everything is crisp and clear, with no issues to complain about.
Audio is also available in English in Dolby Digital 2.0, and French in Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are offered in English and Spanish, but no Japanese, Arabic, Berber or French.
Babel: 2-disc Collector’s Edition offers just one special feature. Before you cry out in multilingual distress, let me tell you why one extra is enough. On disc two of this set, the one and only extra is a feature-length, behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary. Common Ground: Under Construction Notes is presented from director Iñárritu’s perspective as a video diary chronicling the film’s production. Not only is this the most personal, vulnerable and fascinating exploration of the making of a film I’ve ever seen on any DVD, it’s also better than the film itself.
I could write a lot more about Common Ground, but I suggest you just go ahead and experience it for yourself. If you have any interest in Babel or even just in the art and practice of filmmaking in general, this documentary is a must-see.
Babel: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition is a solid DVD for it’s quality video and audio presentations, but that’s a feat already accomplished by last February’s single-disc release. The best and most important aspect of this new edition is the Common Ground documentary. On the strength of this one special feature alone, this set is a must-have for any fan of the film.