Lowdown: We're the same but we don't realize that. Babel, in short.
I'll make it very clear: I think Magnolia is a hell of a good film. So, when I've heard that there's another film out there that follows the Magnolia formula of weaving together seemingly unrelated stories and giving them a bit of a shake, the way Crash has done quite well (but not as well) more recently, I was interested. This interest led to me reading too many Babel reviews a while ago, and the result of that was that when I got to actually watch Babel I knew way too much about it to fully enjoy it.
On the other hand, being that Babel is directed by the same guy that did 21 Grams, which I thought was a pretty bad film, I didn't expect much of it. So you could say I had somewhat of a compromised yet balanced approach to the film.
Before I start with my basic analysis, let's cover the plot. As I said, it's a mix of independent stories which have one connection or another. At its pivot, but only through star power and not through being the true axis, Babel features the story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, a married American couple who are out to revive their marriage in Morocco. They left their children behind with their housekeeper, who needs to leave to Mexico in order to attend her son's marriage. Then we have ourselves a deaf Japanese female teenager who is hungry for attention and her ex-hunter father (the mother has died), and on top of that we have a Moroccan family living in the middle of nowhere that has just bought a gun to keep the predators away from their sheep. Take all these stories, shake them up with Blanchett getting shot in Morocco by a kid looking after his sheep, and you end up with the story of the tower of Babel repeated in a modern setting. Essentially, the film is all about how similar we are yet how through the differences in our cultures we cannot properly communicate with one another.
There are many good things about the way the film tries to make its point. Analogies run all across the different plot lines, showing us how similar people of different cultures are: A Moroccan girl in the middle of the desert takes her clothes off so her brother can watch, in much
the same way as the well off Japanese teenager does at a diner while trying to attract boys' attention. The motifs about us not being able to understand anything that is foreign to us are also well emphasized through the deaf Japanese teenager, in scenes that portray her deaf point of view; the reality of places we take for granted seems awfully twisted when we look at it through the eyes of a deaf person. And then there's the strong acting: Brad Pitt puts on a very worthy performance, and the rest of the cast - most of which I've never seen before - are not that bad, either.
Most of all, though, the film's point about Babel being here is made through the interaction between the various people in the stories. The American kids in Mexico, American and European tourists in Morocco, and the Japanese in Morocco. The end result is not flattering at all to the people of the West, but my point here is that this "opposites do not attract but actually go their opposite ways" is portrayed very well in the film.
But then there are many bad things about the film that spoil the fun. First, it's quite predictable: Quickly enough you realize that this is one of those films where if something can go wrong, it will; so just as quickly you can figure out what is going to happen. Then there are the time shifting games, where we're not only moving from one plot to another, we're also moving back and forth through time all the time; call me a "has been", but I don't like this trick. I've had enough of it already and I think that since its birth in Pulp Fiction it has been way too abused.
What else? Some of the plot developments don't really make sense when you think about them (and even when you don't), and the way in which some of the plot lines relate to one another is rather thin (a problem that applies mostly to the Japanese side of the story).
Best scene: As mentioned, the scene where the deaf girl goes to a disco is an educational experience. It just looks so weird when you don't have the sound; almost like you're off the earth altogether. The director makes sure you'll have the most annoying experience possible, though, by skipping between the normal point of view and the deaf point of view every couple of seconds.
Another scene worth mentioning pits a tourist bus in the middle of a forsaken Moroccan village. The attitude of the tourists looks as though it came directly from Borat, yet you can clearly see how it got to be the way it is.
Picture quality: Lots of detail, but there's also evident noise.
Sound quality: Nothing spectacular, especially with the sparse use of the surrounds. However, there's an emphasis here on realism that works very well. Music is also very well recorded, and with the solo string work you can hear exactly what every string is doing.
Overall: You watch Babel and you realize it's a film with a worthy cause done by a director who wants to show off his film skills more than he wants to make a good film. The result is a film that can earn anything from 3 to 4 stars, depending on what you feel about the tricks the director tries to pull off his hat. Personally, I would rate it as somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.