Eternity with Angels and Ghosts: Babylon (2022) - Reviewed


Images courtesy of Paramount 

Damien Chazelle's Babylon (2022) is a trainwreck, an ambitious and self-indulgent spectacular, that doesn't even try to corral all its disparate elements together into anything coherent. That unwillingness to exercise any self-restraint is both the film's biggest strength and its biggest weakness making for a roller-coaster ride of exhilaration and boredom alike. 

Babylon is an ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood following several characters as they transition from the silent era to the dawn of sound. There are characters from all walks of life: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) a movie star in the prime of his career, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a vibrant aspiring actress, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) a low-ranking set assistant, and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) a jazz trumpet player. Over the course of the film these character's paths weave in and out of each other as they try to navigate and flourish in the bourgeoning film scene. 

Chazelle has decided to go for shock value in Babylon, depicting wild parties reminiscent of the hedonistic orgy sequences in Tinto Brass' infamous film Caligula (1979). The story opens up during one of these shindigs and the audience is taken on a whirlwind tour of pretty much every kink possible, from water sports to group sex, with piles of drugs everywhere and debauchery at every corner. It is quite intense, and it probably will be off-putting to many viewers. It serves to cement the era, however, the wild freedom that was enjoyed before the moralists started cracking down on everything a decade later.

The strongest section of the movie is the second act where the narrative takes a deep dive into how movies were made during the silent era, with huge set-pieces and incredible cinematography. There was a controlled chaos with no precedent set yet, a wild west of experimentation and creativity that is mesmerizing to watch on screen. This is where the over-the-top atmosphere shines and the dialogue sings, with snappy exchanges and sharp humor. It makes one feel wistful for the giant lavish old Hollywood style epics.

Unfortunately, as the narrative marches into the third act it loses a significant amount of steam as Chazelle tries to reinforce the themes. The concept of "the fall of Babylon" is introduced as the characters reach crossroads in their careers, bumping up with middle-age and approaching obscurity. There is a nihilism simmering under the surface, a fear that Hollywood is an endless cycle of bringing people up to astronomical heights then dropping them into the dirt the second they have outlived their usefulness. It is an intriguing topic but introduced far too late in the film to have enough impact, and so it feels somewhat tacked on. Babylon starts feeling its length at this point too, dragging on for too long. It also seems like some characters don't get enough screen time, especially Sidney Palmer. Palmer is a black musician in a time of heavy racism and though it is touched upon, it doesn't feel fleshed out enough and his story is the most interesting one.

It's too bad Chazelle didn't quite stick the landing, but the journey is still entertaining and worth a trip just for the presentation and pure audacity.

—Michelle Kisner