The 2022 film “Babylon” is a period-piece epic predominantly concerned with the fate of Hollywood, the movies made there, and the theaters those films play in. It was also the biggest box office bomb of the year. Is it a good film? Critics gave a mixed response, as have awards shows — but that might just be a less important question than the one “Babylon” asks of its audience.
The film, starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, written and directed by Damien Chazelle and released by Paramount, is an ode to cinema that makes an indisputable argument for the form’s immortality, recognizing it in the fiery cycle of the phoenix over the monument doomed to weather into dust. Deathlessness be damned, Chazelle sees Hollywood as a body whose every cell is eventually replaced over the years, ever-changing yet forever the same.
Yet it’s hard to know if Babylon, Chazelle or Paramount fully grasp this message that they crafted. Before the opening credits roll, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, the two leads of “Babylon,” appear on screen to thank the viewer for seeing the film as it should be seen, in a crowded theater. Aside from the irony of sending off this note to a $5 million bomb of a box office opening (on an $80 million budget), it conveys an anxiety about the industry and art form that clashes with the film’s promises of their survival. This anxiety is threaded into the wider debate about the future of movies — which ones will be made, and where will they be seen? The answer seems to be, “fewer like these, and in fewer and fewer theaters.”
Deep into the film, there’s a monologue from Pitt’s character defending film as an art form and arguing for the power it holds in its accessibility to the masses. Many viewers who would all but burst into applause upon hearing those words would apply the ingrained populism a bit more sparingly in reality. The studio films Pitt’s character refers to, that these people rightly link with the raw humanistic power of cinema, were no less mass-produced than the Marvel flicks or other modern studio productions they groan at.
This is not to say that such films and their creation processes are particularly defensible — Babylon itself isn’t exactly an endorsement of industry methods or culture — but they have the kind of value that we’ve seen in Hollywood era after era.
The magic of the movies isn’t in genre, or in celluloid, or in a big-screen projection and a $15 dollar ticket, or even in the labors of everyone who brought the film to life. It’s in the movies themselves, and as long as they exist, the magic does too.