Martians with wanderlust, beware. The plot of ‘Babel’ turns us all into extraplanetary onlookers, staring down at earth from a smug edit-room above the globe. From there, we witness three stories that give both our planet and cinema a bad name. Well-heeled Californians Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on a coach-tour in the Atlas Mountains; back home, their Mexican housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is looking after the two kids and readying to travel to Tijuana for a wedding. In Tokyo, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf teenager, isn’t getting on well with her businessman dad, who once donated a gun to a Moroccan holiday guide. To complete the circle, back in Morocco two teenage sons of a goat-herder are playing with their dad’s rifle as a coach snakes along the road below… No one’s to blame, but tragic fate intervenes in the lives of all the folk of ‘Babel’. Add several incidences of cultural misunderstanding to the mix and everyone’s in for a bumpy ride and our planet’s looking like a place to avoid at all cost.
If misery is your pornography, ‘Babel’ is your holy grail. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga have previously applied their model of leapfrogging narratives and tragic coincidences to the scale of a city (‘Amores Perros’) and a country (‘21 Grams’) and now they’ve held a similar mirror to the entire globe in an energetic but thoroughly depressing and shallow film that connects its international characters in a whirling maelstrom of glossy, quick-edit and all-round flashy suffering. Ask why Iñárritu and Arriaga have now upgraded to ambitious country-hopping and it’s hard to dodge the niggling feeling that there’s only one answer: because they could. Ask what dramatic benefits there are to the tenuous linking of the film’s three disparate, cross-continental stories and, frankly, I can’t think of one beyond the sort of banal message better suited to a television commercial that implores us to phone home more.
If Iñárritu were to suggest a similar plot of butterfly effects that saw disparate actions and events causing unforeseen happiness, love and comedy across the globe, we’d accuse him of hands-across-the-globe triteness suitable only for fluffy ads or Michael Jackson singles. But flip that happiness into tragedy and what we’re meant to see is searing, meaningful art. It’s time to return to earth; I don’t buy it for a second.