The third feature by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu closely follows the same theme and structure of his first two, Amores Perros and 21 Grams: A tragic accident has occurred, and Iñárritu follows the various strangers whose lives have been affected by it.
Amores Perros played with different characters who never meet; 21 Grams plays with time. Babel plays with both, and also throws a number of different languages into the mix. You might think the results would be hopelessly confusing, but Babel is far easier to follow than the adventurous (if poor, story-wise) 21 Grams, and all in all is much subtler, believable, and watchable than either of the two earlier films. This is a good sign, for I think Iñárritu is a highly talented director with many strong films in his future. And if only he and cowriter Guillermo Arriaga could come up with stories and themes that actually don't fall apart upon examination, then his work would be as great as he thinks it is.
Babel's story takes place in three continents, where a freak accident involving the shooting of an American tourist in Morocco (Cate Blanchett) affects her husband (Brad Pitt), her Mexican nanny back home (Adriana Barraza), and, somehow, a deaf-mute teenager in Japan (Rinko Kikuchi). With its polyglot soundtrack and obvious title, you'd think Babel would be about the tragedy of different languages, where mistakes in translation could lead to horrible consequences. But in fact everybody in Babel seems to have no problem communicating, as long as they're bilingual or have a translator about, which they all seem to do. So what then is the point of making this seemingly about language?
Babel is really about broken families, which brings up the other complaint I have with the film: It's become all too common for "independent" features to take a short cut to empathy by presenting us with characters who have just lost a child, a mother, or some other close relative. It's a cheap ploy if ever there was one. Although the characters are still strangers to us, the filmmakers expect us to care about them just because they have endured a family loss. I don't buy it, because we almost never see how the families functioned before that person's death. So we can't truly sympathize with their loss. Babel takes this short cut with nearly every character.
However, I still think Babel is a good movie. The performances are all strong, there are some incredibly tense scenes, and I loved Gustavo Santaolalla's acoustic guitar-laden score. In fact, I wish that the work of Iñárritu, Arriga and the cast could have brought out the emotions in me that Santaolalla's music did. But alas, when all is said and done, I feel that Babel limped to a conclusion both flat and slightly rushed, and it failed to touch my heart.