An Exhausting Film6/10
Alas, it appears that, based on other user comments here at IMDb, I am in the minority on this film. I found it to be tedious and exhausting, and the effort I put into sticking with it far outweighed any sense of closure I received from it.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu appeared at the screening I saw and introduced his film as the final entry in a trilogy that includes "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams." Inarritu, in a comment that surprised me, said that his intent with this trilogy was not to focus on politics or social commentary, but rather to look at the modern family and what it means to be a father, son, mother, daughter, etc. This may have been his intention, but I don't feel that over the course of three entire films Inarritu did say much about these issues. Instead, he has painted a portrait of the world as he apparently sees it as a pretty bleak, uncaring and unforgiving place to live. I thought "Amore Perros" was so pessimistic as to border on nihilism; "21 Grams" came closer to finding a sense of peace and redemption among the general human crappiness. "Babel" sticks closer to the sentiments of the first film than the latter.
"Babel" is of course about communication, or more exactly miscommunication, in the modern world. It's a theme that has engaged the interest of many a filmmaker lately -- the idea that technology has made instant communication so much easier, yet people seem to be more than ever incapable of understanding one another. It's a conceit that greatly interests me, but Inarritu doesn't exploit its potential here. "Babel" consists of a monotonous series of scenes in which people shout, storm, fight and talk over one another, always in a hurry to be understood without taking the time to understand. Very well, point taken. But Inarritu makes this point within the film's first half hour -- you only need see one or two scenes of this kind of frustrating verbal gridlock to understand what he's trying to say; after that, the frustration just mounts without any kind of pay off. People are mean to one another, some are unbelievably callous (I didn't buy for a second that the group of tourists who accompany Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's characters to a remote Moroccan village after Blanchett is accidentally shot would be so uncaring as Inarritu depicts them). In Inarritu's world, all authority figures are to be justifiably feared, as they go around beating everybody up and pulling guns on innocent people. There's no nuance here; Inarritu pounds his message into you. For example, he obviously feels strongly about the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, especially those from Mexico, but instead of engaging in an intelligent debate about the topic, he sets up such an implausible, not to mention one-sided, scenario in this film that you can't help but agree with him.
The biggest disappointment in "Babel" is his failure to fully utilize a couple of wonderful actors he has assembled. Cate Blanchett is utterly wasted as the caustic American wife whose shooting sets off the chain of events. And Gael Garcia Bernal likewise gets nothing to do as a hot-headed Mexican whose attempts to run from border patrol creates a sad ending for one of the major characters. Brad Pitt does better than expected with the frenzied, frustrated husband of Blanchett. But these people have no history. We know virtually nothing about anybody in the film, yet are expected to care deeply about what happens to them. Maybe that's part of Inarritu's point -- that we're all connected to one another even if we don't know it, and that the world has become so small that there are no longer such things as strangers in it. But this is a film narrative, not real life, and you can't build a compelling one out of anonymous characters.
After "21 Grams" I thought I was warming up to Inarritu, but this film has sent me back to the detractors' camp. He certainly knows how to put a movie together, and he finds engaging ways to tell his stories. But his attitudes and approach to the modern world are so depressing and fatalistic that his films push me away rather than draw me in.