If my memory serves me well, my knowledge of The Towel of Babel is from the Bible, where it was said that men at one time were speaking one common language, and aspired to build a tower so high that it would reach the Heavens. For some reason, God decided to pour cold water on the massive project, by dispersing everyone on Earth to far corners, and have us humans speak multiple languages, so that overnight, we couldn't understand one another, and therefore, the Tower project had to be abandoned.
Babel just triumphed at this year's Golden Globes by walking away with the Best Drama award, which The Departed was touted to win, but I guess having a movie which is a remake win the award, is akin to saying "Infernal Affairs, you guys can trounce our multi-million dollar epics anytime". Babel follows a similar formula to other acclaimed movies such as Crash and Syriana, which take on a multiple angle, multiple story, with multiple intertwined characters all running along in the fragmented narrative, with the story arcs all linked to a common theme. With Crash and Syriana, the themes were clear and simple. With Babel however, it lived up to its issue of communications.
In a bad way that is. Babel probably wanted to be bringing across the message of the importance of communication, and miscommunication, but it turned out to live the message of the latter instead. Perhaps it wanted to elevate itself more into a thinking man's movie, but really, it's much ado about nothing. For movies which relied on narrative gimmicks such as this, it belongs to the same category as my previous movie review for Haven. Entertaining wannabe, but not quite there yet.
Written and directed by the same team who did 21 Grams (director Alenjandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, which probably explains why thanks went out to Naomi Watts and Sean Penn), it's not all that bad, but you rue at its missed opportunities to really become something great. There are four arcs here - the first being a Moroccan farmer and his children, the second an American couple in a life-and-death crisis, the third a Mexican housekeeper and the children of her employers, and lastly, a look into a Japanese deaf mute's relationships with people around her, which probably is the one with the least relations with the others, but had the most potential in bringing out the theme.
In all the stories, you see the attempts at communication, or lack thereof due to language, but you notice many a times, that language itself serves not as a barrier so long as the willingness to address another person is there. The American couple (possibly the big name stars in the movie - Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) with zero language barriers, yet faced with insurmountable difficulties in understanding each other, or in the deaf mute's case, the constant brushing away of parental concern, and of course, the inherent difficulty in not being able to speak or hear another person.
In fact, in all these stories, it's more about the cry for help, in various sense, with heartwrenching moments in each. The Moroccan farmer sensing futility in the heavy handedness of the law, the American couple literally begging for help in a land in which they do not speak the language, and in their ill attitudes of blaming everyone else, of the Mexican housekeeper getting her charges stuck in a nightmare situation, contradicting her many years of faithful service, and of course, the Japanese arc, the deaf mute undergoing peer pressure in getting laid, and we question the reasons for her sexual promiscuity. And I couldn't help it but laugh at the various televised news reports in the movie, that the media is always quick to jump to conclusions, and in doing so, helps nobody at all.
There are familiar actors in the movie, but don't go expecting any to pick up any awards anytime soon, as their roles do not offer them a chance to shine, especially not in a crowded ensemble like this with little room for much character development. Keen eyed viewers might recognized Gael Garcia Bernal from another movie now showing - The King, and Dakota Fanning fans will get a chance to see her sister Elle Fanning in action, albeit in a very small role, most of the time asleep. What could have set tongues wagging would be Rinko Kikuchi's role which required full frontal nudity and Sharon Stone-ish moments, but really, there's nothing much to it.
My verdict is that Babel is overrated, belonging to that cross narrative wannabe style of storytelling, with actually a very simple story to tell, let down by delivery, traded off for style instead. Don't expect too much from it.