A film about Hollywood excess is itself a prime example of Hollywood excess with Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Featuring electrifying performances from Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, and Brad Pitt, the film is hilarious and engrossing in fits and starts but running over three hours is an often tedious affair. But, the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray features a gorgeous Dolby Vision transfer and an incredible Atmos audio track. Certainly not for everyone but a the very least Worth A Look
It’s the 20s, and they are roaring. Kinescope Pictures has the biggest hits featuring the biggest stars like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) with the biggest directors. Behind the glitz, glam, and fame are endless nights of depraved parties, unlimited booze, and enough drugs to get everyone so high they never have to come down. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is ready to do anything to become the biggest star on screen. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) will do whatever it takes to become the most important mover and shaker in the industry. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is eager to prove that he as well as his fellow musicians of color are just as talented, if not more so, than those faces on screen. As the industry is primed for a great upheaval with the invention of new filmmaking techniques, some established and rising stars and major players may not live long enough to enjoy the next premier, let alone the next party.
After scoring his Best Director Oscar for La La Land, no one can fault Damien Chazelle for chasing some exciting projects. He’s adept at painting intricate character portraits on a large canvas and infusing his films with a magnetic energy you can’t look away from. From the gorgeously composed visuals to the exceptional sound design and music accompaniment, his films are unique enterprises for a filmmaker of his generation. It’s understandable how each film garners the attention of top-tier A-List talent. After Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man - who wouldn’t want to be a part of one of his films? Then comes Babylon.
I’ve recently read some assessments that call this a “career killer” for Chazelle and like the film, I would call that sentiment an example of gross excess. Babylon isn’t a career killer for this young filmmaker by any stretch, but it certainly got away from Chazelle. In fits and starts the film works. It can be enthralling and exciting and even hilarious to the point you can’t ever blink. Then it drifts into relentless directionless tedium to the point you have to stop to take a break. There’s value in shock but you can tax any film’s shock value quickly and this film frequently tests your patience for viscera-filled excess. In three hours and eight minutes, there may be only a couple of bodily fluids we don’t see graphically thrown at the screen - and I do mean right at the screen. The first ten minutes alone are a litmus test for those willing to sit through the next three hours.
Within this exercise of excess are pieces of a great film. When it works it’s glorious as the audience is allowed to fully revel in these recreations of key moments during one of Hollywood’s most important turning points. Manny chasing down the only working camera in town, Nellie struggling to hit her marks and pitch for her first talkie, Jack Conrad defending his industry as art - there are so many incredible scenes and moments within these little vignettes of Hollywood history. Unfortunately, there’s just too much over-bloated stuff getting in the way that simply pads out the runtime to an almost excruciating bladder-busting length for what is ultimately a parallel-dimension version of Singin' in the Rain. The film just never really comes together only for the entire thing to be upstaged by a delightfully unhinged performance from Tobey Maguire. One could easily chop a half hour of shock partying shenanigans and you’d never even notice.
As much as there is that I didn’t enjoy about Babylon there’s so much that’s so great that I know I will be revisiting this film several more times. Through the grotesqueries and narrative excess, there is genuine beauty in this film with incredible performances, exquisite cinematography, and another infectious score from Justin Hurwitz. If we can live in an era where something like Michael Cimino’s notorious flop Heaven’s Gate can be reassessed as a misunderstood work from a master craftsmen filmmaker, Chazelle will assuredly survive Babylon’s box office bust. It might not have worked, but at least he took the shot. As I wait to regain the fortitude to watch this film again, I hope to hear Chazelle’s next film is on the horizon soon.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra Blu-ray
Babylon arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Paramount with a three-disc 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital set. The 4K version scores a BD-100 disc, a Region-Free BD-50 disc is saved for the 1080p presentation while an additional BD-25 is reserved for the bonus features. Paramount was kind enough to send over the SteelBook set and it’s a pretty piece of work. Each disc gets its own tray without stacking. The disc loads to a static image main menu with standard navigation options.
Shot on 35mm, this native 4K Dolby Vision transfer is simply beautiful. No two ways about it. Frequent Chazelle collaborator Linus Sandgren once again proves he’s one of the best shooters working today. Every frame is packed with incredible detail of light, shadow, and color creating a visual feast. Even with some of the most ghastly grotesque fluids escaping any number of orifices, the film is rich with fine details. Facial features, amazing costumes, incredible production values, and impressive makeup work are all given their due with this transfer.
Dolby Vision HDR enjoys a hell of a workout between the exciting range of primaries, shadows, and brilliant lighting effects and scenery. Black levels are excellent giving each frame a terrific sense of three-dimensional depth. Chazelle loves those long-take unbroken shots of chaos and they look amazing here. Colors are vibrant and beautiful with primaries enjoying every shade of blue, red, and yellow. Whites are brilliantly crisp from the lily-white costumes to the blistering lights of the soundstages.
I’m grateful Paramount opted for a BD-100 disc giving this film a healthy bitrate to work with. Film grain is present and natural throughout without ever looking noisy or intrusive. No signs of bitrate modulation or smoothing of some recent Paramount catalog titles. I also didn’t see any serious or noteworthy artifacts or visual anomalies. Top to bottom, this is a virtually flawless presentation.
Not to slouch in the audio department, Babylon scores are damn near perfect Atmos audio mix. From the busiest party to the quietest conversation, all front, side, rear, and height channels get their moments to shine. An elephant offers up what is certainly one of the most unique uses of height space I’ve ever heard… and will likely never hear those sounds again in another movie. The big party sequences are virtually wall-to-wall sonic immersion with an epic war scene proving to be one of the most exciting auditory experiences of the film. Hell, even the sound of a champagne bottle entering someone is given a distinct pin-point placed effect! Every ploop, flop, gush, squeak, and schloop is given pinpoint precision placement in the soundscape. Throughout the film dialog never falters. Even in the busiest sequences dialog can easily be heard without issue. Once again credit needs to be given to Justin Hurwitz’s incredible score. The music is infectious with lively beats and tunes to accentuate the chaos but the jazzy brass and drums kick the Atmos mix’s LFE factor into high gear for some exciting rumble in the subs. You’re going to want to play it loud for maximum impact. For a film that’s not all jets, missiles, and gunfire, this may well be one of my favorite Atmos tracks to date.
All told Babylon isn’t given the most robust or excessive number of bonus features ever assembled. The making of featurette is actually pretty good and at just over thirty minutes it manages to cover a lot of ground without only being a bunch of crappy EPK talking head segments strung together. The costume and scoring sections are sadly anemic considering how much effort went into both aspects, hell, I could watch a full doc just on Hurwitz assembling the score and the modern influences on old-school 1920s band jazz. Then we come to the deleted scenes, which while interesting you can see why they were cut.
Exciting, enthralling, magnetic, excessive, grotesque, tedious - Babylon is certainly a unique cinematic exercise. The film offers up numerous moments of absolute brilliance, but the spiraling story often loses focus when it should be tightening up and working towards its conclusion. It missed at the box office and it’s not a movie I’d say everyone should run out and see, but it’s worth checking out. I don’t hate it. I didn’t completely connect with it, but I’m more than willing to check it out again down the line to see if the second or third time is the charm. While the film may appeal or repulse some people, the impressive Dolby Vision transfer and impactful Atmos track make for an incredible 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release. Bonus features are a bit light, but at least the making-of featurette offers some interesting insight into the film. Not a film everyone will love but the disc is excellent and certainly Worth A Look