Five laguages. Four stories. Three continents. One stray bullet. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are a wealthy couple from San Diego vacationing in Morocco. Their two children are at home under the care of their Mexican housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). As the couple's tour bus makes its way across the countryside, a rifle finds its way into the hands of a local herdsman's young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), who recklessly take a shot at the passing spectators, unknowingly injuring Susan. Meanwhile, an innocent trip South of the border puts Amelia and Richard and Susan's children in danger, stranding them with little hope of returning to America. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a widower (Koji Yakusho) tied to the rifle via a complex shift of ownership, attempts to deal with the memories of his recently deceased wife and his strained relationship with his deaf teenage daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). This chain reaction of events will reach across the globe, with far-reaching political ramifications.
Welcome to the world of 'Babel.' I didn't quite know what to expect heading into this film -- despite its boatload of Golden Globe and Oscar hosannas, it seems to have inspired a 'Crash'-like level of hatred among its detractors. I had no such extreme reaction. Though I often have a knee-jerk resistence to films attempting to be "profound" (and even those that are simply praised as such), 'Babel' worked very strongly for me. Its individual threads are compelling, like little short stories that tell their own tales and reveal their own secrets. Weaved together, these stories grow in complexity and meaning, both contrasting and paralleling each other with fascinating results. In short, 'Babel' is no mere gimmick movie.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ('Amores perros,' '28 Grams') definitely takes his time. As we meet each of the six families, we don't know how their lives will come to be intertwined. Yet I never grew restless or uneasy, because the way Inarritu juxtaposes images -- through editing, sound and jumps in time -- is confident, not haphazard. Inarritu is often quite marvelous in how he directs us to see commonality through contrast. For example, in a startling cut, he shifts from Susan, screaming in agony at having to receive an emergency suture, with Chieko mouthing the words to a song in her own private silence. It is a moment that illustrates that however many worlds apart these two very different people may be, in an instant they share a pain that is universal, and unconcerned with race, class or country. This is perceptive filmmaking. And it is the subtle accumulation of moments like these, all of which build to a combustible climax, that what has earned 'Babel' such praise from its legion of supporters.
'Babel' is also a terrific ensemble piece. Despite the star wattage of Pitt and Blanchett -- likely the only names familiar to American audiences -- no one character or story dominates, and the less recognizable faces are true revelations. Both Barraza and Kikuchi, each now Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress, are fantastic. Barraza at first seems confused, overwhelmed and largely reactive -- almost like a non-character. But when she needs to pull together to save the children she whose care she has been entrusted with, she displays a depth of emotion that blindsides everyone. And Kikuchi, who is denied access to perhaps the most precious asset of an actor -- her voice -- is still able to convey every single emotion perfectly with just the expression on her face. It's a bravura performance, a true tight-wire act between the subtle and the theatrical that few others could have pulled off with such naked abandon.
Taken out of context, much of 'Babel' means little. But as a cumulative experience, its impact and force inspired me. It's a bit like a cinematic Rorschach test -- you take from it what you bring to it. For me, I'm most touched by the film's contention that we live in a world where it is impossible to stay disconnected, however hard we try. The six families in 'Babel' would never in a million years think their lives would be at all similar, much less intersect. But the images of other cultures we now see daily on TV and the internet can no longer be kept confined in the easy category of "The Other." 'Babel' challenges us to see more of what is the same about each other than what is different. It also eviscerates the idea of cultural separatism. Every action has consequence, not just for those we touch but for the entire world around us. 'Babel's cinematic legacy may be that like the best, most memorable films, it is a mirror.
At first glance, 'Babel' may not seem like the type of film that would benefit much from the bump to high-def. It's a grainy, battered, rough-looking film -- a visual style that perfectly suits the film's subject matter, but that would hardly seem to qualify it as demo material. However, since Paramount was nice enough to also send a copy of the standard-def DVD along with the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions, a comparison reveals that there is actually a noticeable if not exactly phenomenal upgrade in depth, color fidelity and resolution.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p video. This Blu-ray release is encoded in MPEG-2, while the HD DVD is AVC MPEG-4. Being able to compare all simultaneously, and given the grainy texture of the film, there is scant difference between the two high-def versions. Though 'Babel' was shot in 35mm, it often looks like a very nice 16mm blow-up. Grain is ever-present, though unlike, say, Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic,' the interlocking stories generally have the same feel and texture, so the image is surprisingly consistent. Colors are subdued throughout -- reds become pale burgundy, blues the color of a muted sky, and greens pale and sickly. Contrast is a bit whited out, at least during bright exteriors, but it is not particularly excessive. 'Babel' never looks "digital," instead more resembling a well-worn film.
Predictably, the high-def "wow" factor is not comparable to a slick, big-budget Hollywood spectacle. But close-ups in particular shine, with fine detail apparent, especially in faces. And depth is better than you might expect, with even long shots fairly substantial in revealing texture to the many natural and man-made landscapes. Even exterior night scenes sparkle a bit, especially scenes featuring the glittering Japanese nightlife. For such a busy film, I was also impressed by the lack of any compression artifacts -- neither blockiness nor video noise are ever a problem.
'Babel' is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround at 640kbps, though unfortunately, that's only about half of the 1.5mbps that its HD DVD counterpart receives. Why Paramount continues to offer such diminished audio on its Blu-ray releases remains a mystery. However, in the case of 'Babel,' I can't say it makes much of a difference. The film's sound design is restrained, and even after a fresh comparison between the two soundtracks given their disparate bitrates, I can't promise you'll get much in the way of blockbuster audio here. (Still, I'm knocking the Blu-ray audio rating down a half-a-star versus the HD DVD, just on principal, Paramount!)
The film is primarily dialogue-driven, but there are a good number of creative moments that play with sound. The score will often slowly fade into eerie silence. Ambient or droning effects will suddenly swell up, overtaking dialogue. Bursts of classic standards or modern pop songs will fill the speakers. There are even audio dropouts in the nightclub scene, to aurally convey the isolation of the character. This Blu-ray presentation handles each of these unusual choices with robust, clean dynamics and good low bass. Even the wide-ranging dialects come through clearly, though of course I couldn't understand a word of the non-English speaking actors without the burned-in subtitles, so I can't comment on their intelligibility.
All that is really lacking here is a deft surround presence. There just isn't much going on in the rear channels at all, which is disappointing. The film often achieves a hypnotic power, which could have been even more greatly enhanced by better immersion. As is, 'Babel' enjoys an effective enough soundtrack, even if it is curiously muted.
Very little here. Only the film's Theatrical Trailer is included in full 1080p video. Do I sense a more substantial release coming in the future?
For most, 'Babel' is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I personally found it to be a very strong film -- a fascinating and well-acted think-piece. Filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu achieves individual moments of great power and urgency, while his juxtaposition of multiple storylines creates a mosaic that is ultimately far more than the sum of its parts.
This Blu-ray release, however, leaves one with the distinct impression that it is a stop-gap release designed to capitalize on the film's many Oscar noms. The disc looks and sounds good, but the lack of any extras is disappointing for a film as complex as this. I also am perplexed as to why Paramount is not offering soundtracks on its Blu-ray titles with bitrates equal to HD DVD. In any case, until a more fleshed-out version arrives, I'd recommend leaving this one as a rental.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.