By Jack McLaughlin
Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” released in December, and was immediately a critical and financial failure. The film was criticized for its exhausting runtime of over three hours and its unique structuring that didn’t resonate with most audiences.
After viewing the film, these major critiques were simply not issues. In fact, it was one of the best films I had seen in the last year and was puzzled after leaving the theater wondering why critics loathed it.
“Babylon” is a period piece set in 1920s Hollywood, telling the story of the transition from silent to sound in film and the consequences this had on the stars of the silent era.
Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie star as the hottest celebrities of silent film, and it documents their drug fueled highs and their dreary lows.
Manny Tores (Diego Calva) serves as our main character, a fish out of water thrust into the industry that slowly lets himself become consumed by the cutthroat nature of film production.
The film is split up into two sequences - one of which shows the height of the main character’s careers while the second half shows their downfall after the transition to sound in film.
The bombastic party in the nearly 30-minute opening sequence serves as a fast-paced and energetic introduction to the three main characters. The use of shocking imagery can be a little tiresome in the opening, as at times it feels like every cut is going to show us one gross thing after another.
Each and every performance in this film deserves more love than it already isn’t receiving. Margot Robbie steals the spotlight from the other main characters, showing viewers her dramatic rise to stardom and its crushing end.
Robbie’s best sequence is when she is trying to act with dialogue for the first time. The frustration from everyone in the room made it a tense watch, which is something Chazelle can pull off excellently as evident in his older films.
That doesn’t mean the other main characters don’t get good moments, as this is easily one of Brad Pitt’s best performances in recent memory. His ability to play someone who has everything taken away from him was captivating and due to the film’s performance will likely go ignored by most viewers.
The score, done by Justin Hurwitz, perfectly embodies the spirit of the movie with the main theme “Voodoo Mama” being a track bursting with excitement that is used to boost the vibrant and exciting mood of certain scenes.
For the most part, the last hour and a half uses more drab colors, and a lot of the sequences have a darker tone as opposed to the bright and exciting first half. The scenes are much slower, and are focused more on character growth rather than the story that was first set up.
By far the most disturbing sequence in this film is in the second half, when the film seemingly out of nowhere introduces James McKay (Tobey Maguire) into the story. As a huge fan of the actor, it was a delightful surprise.
James McKay is easily Maguire’s weirdest performance, playing a person who seeks out twisted forms of entertainment that sends the film into an underground party sequence that easily goes down as one of the most disturbing moments in modern film.
Its unexpected turn gives it almost a horror vibe, an unknown situation for our main characters with a limited use of light that only gives you glimpses of the vile imagery.
The exhilarating feeling you get watching this movie doesn’t let up, and that is especially the case in its final moments.
Its ending consists of a flashy, colorful montage that reflects not only on the story of our main characters, but also an homage to filmmaking as a whole.
This scene acts like the signature on a love letter to the beauty and complexity of cinema, and its flashing between that and Manny crying in the theater will leave you feeling exhausted in the best way possible.
“Babylon” is a glamorous tribute to cinema that doesn’t shy away from the ugly sides of it. Its focus on both sides of Hollywood shows the undying passion artists have for their work to make an impact.
A: The underrated masterpiece of 2022.