There are so many good things about Babel, so many moments that held me transfixed as I watched, that I am reluctant to say what I really think: That it doesn't add up to much. This is not to say it's a bad movie -- it's vastly better than much of what's out there -- but it sets expectations so high that only a perfect mix of luck and genius could create anything to meet them, and the luck and genius of Babel lie scattered (plentifully, but still scattered) through various scenes and strands of story.
The first expectations I had for Babel were the expectations created by the director's (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and writer's (Guillermo Arriaga) previous movies, Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I recognize that it's perhaps unfair to judge a work by its creator's previous works, but I can't help it -- watching Amores Perros was an extraordinary experience, and 21 Grams, though certainly inferior, was nonetheless interesting and powerful. Babel, too, is interesting and powerful at times, but much as 21 Grams was a better experience in the moment than on reflection, Babel dissipates after further thought.
While watching Babel, I was transfixed. Iñárritu has become a slicker filmmaker than he was with Amores Perros, and he sets up heart-stopping situations and paces them brilliantly, alternating slow and thoughtful moments with explosions of suspense, tension, and action. From long, slow close-ups on faces, allowing actors to suggest depths and contradictions of character, we move to sharp, jostled, ragged, frenetically-edited scenes of movement, confusion, panic, terror. Amores Perros contained all the same elements, but they were put together differently, more languidly, in a way that was somehow less manipulative, less determined, and, for me at least, while on the whole less gripping, vastly more satisfying.
Immediately after leaving the theatre, I began to wonder about the movie. I couldn't deny how much I had enjoyed it, how moved I had been in the moment of watching. Most movies, even ones that I like very much, do not have that effect on me, and I didn't want, and don't want, to discount it.
And yet I began to wonder: Did we really need the story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's children and the nanny/maid who inadvertently gets them into so much trouble? It wasn't the ridiculous coincidence of it all that bothered me -- many of my favorite movies and plays and books would not exist without ridiculous coincidences in their plots -- but rather that the coincidences didn't add much to the movie. In King Lear, it's pretty hard to believe that all of the outcast characters would meet at the blasted heath during a storm, but I am perfectly happy to cut Shakespeare some slack in the realism department because that scene is so rich and beautiful, so who cares about realism? I fall back on realism and plausibility only when there's nothing else to grab, or when I feel the creator is being manipulative or arbitrary. The California/Mexico strand of the movie feels both manipulative and arbitrary, and as well acted and filmed as that section is, I couldn't escape the feeling that the movie would have been more effective without it.
A day later, I have begun to wonder other things. Do the stories add up to anything other than a plea for recognition of the commonalities between people? Oddly enough, while watching the film I never thought it was about commonalities, though now that theme seems obvious to me. Connections, certainly, I recognized those right off, but the connections between events sand characters seemed to be simply a convenient way for Iñárritu and Arriaga to link up some different stories, a way that they have used before and seem comfortable with. The movie was most compelling for me when it was showing people at extremes, showing people pushed toward impossible decisions in awful situations. It is in those moments that it becomes most emotionally devastating.
Now I think Iñárritu missed a great opportunity, that he should have pushed it all further somehow, dug deeper, and not settled for so much comfort, so much clarity. He takes characters to extremes only to make it all okay in the end. A better movie might have been the sequel -- how do the characters deal with life after their crises? What becomes of them now that they've reached the edge and climbed back? At least we could have been left with some doubt about circumstances and realities, some ambiguity, some space for possibility and raggedness and truth. We leave the movie knowing too much of what is what, and so the world gets shrunk to the size of a few stories, instead of the stories expanding to hint at the size of the world.