By Bradley Lane
Babylon is writer-director Damien Chazelle’s fifth feature film and comes off the heels of his breakout films, 2014’s Whiplash and 2017’s La La Land. In between these efforts and Babylon however, Chazelle released the critically successful but commercially underwhelming, First Man. However, Hollywood still saw potential in Chazelle, after becoming the youngest person ever to win the Academy Award for best director in 2017 and greenlit a project that was over double the budget for his largest film up to that point. What resulted was the over three-hour-long epic, Babylon, a decades spanning multi-character portrait punctuated by massive set pieces, frenetic camerawork and a deep love of cinema as an artform.
Babylon is a massive film, following the career paths of several characters in 1920s Hollywood during the transition from silent films to the era of sound. If there is one true main character, it would be the hard-working Mexican American immigrant Manny Torres. The film charts Manny’s career from a lowly production assistant to a powerful film studio executive. All of which he accomplished despite navigating through the wild debauchery of the 20s and the changing societal values of the 30s.
By its very nature, Babylon is going to elicit a lot of comparisons from critics. Its structure and episodic nature immediately call to mind Boogie Nights, while its rise and fall plot lines are reminiscent of Scorsese films like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Aside from these films, the movie is obsessed with the legacy of film, so Chazelle is referencing classics throughout the runtime. Thankfully, its unique setting, tone and detailed, even textured, cinematography set it apart enough from its influences that it never feels distractingly derivative.
A large part of Babylon’s plot revolves around the film industry’s problems with exploitation and racism. These are issues that continue to endure into the modern day, and I imagine audiences will have vastly different perspectives on how well Chazelle handles these heavy and very sensitive topics. I think that while his script struggles to nail the details, the broad strokes of Manny’s struggle to maintain power while navigating white supremacy and homophobia reflect the real-life struggle modern marginalized groups face when looking for a voice in the film industry in America.
It cannot be overstated how over the top Babylon really is. The pace is pushed to the max as soon as the film starts, and the foot never leaves the gas for almost the entire runtime. This will exhaust some viewers, but I was head over heels from the start. Chazelle has a deep reverence for cinema that will make this a film nerd’s dream but might risk alienating general audiences. Babylon is exclusively showing in theaters. – 4.5/5 stars