Damien Chazelle’s Babylon Is an Ambitious, Fundamentally Flawed Spectacle

By Cristina Rodriguez, Arts Reporter

For his fifth feature film, Babylon, Damien Chazelle assembles an impressive cast led by Margot Robbie and newcomer Diego Calva. Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, an eager actor trying to break into the business who finds fame in silent films just as Hollywood begins its transition to talkies. Calva portrays Manny Torres, a quiet assistant who finally gets the chance to work on a movie set. Babylon follows the two as they strive for success and become immersed in the glamour and ruthlessness of the late 1920s film industry. The film presents how Hollywood seduces artists but eventually leaves them behind as the medium progresses. In supporting roles, Babylon features big names like Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Li Jun Li, and Jovan Adepo. The film’s ensemble recently received a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. 

Babylon has a running time of over three hours. Nevertheless, the film constantly has the viewer on the edge of their seat. Part of the credit for such an accomplishment goes to Babylon’s production design team. They constructed gigantic sets that lead to culminating moments in which every inch of the screen is filled with extravagance. Anyone interested in film history will enjoy the multiple nods to iconic films and celebrities of 1920s cinema, like The Jazz Singer and disgraced actor Roscoe Arbuckle. Justin Hurwitz, a longtime collaborator of Chazelle, has created a score that pumps energy into every scene, a reminder of why Hurwitz is one of the greatest working composers in Hollywood. Babylon’s soundtrack will likely be a frontrunner this awards season. 

Chazelle has mastered directing party scenes. The first act features a massive festivity with every imaginable crazy trick and wild fantasy that could occur at a Hollywood party. Using whip pans and tracking shots, Chazelle guides his audience through the chaos, telling them where to look. Just like Manny and Nellie, we are newcomers with a mission; Chazelle allows the audience to be amazed but not distracted. This immersive quality that Chazelle creates reminds me of his last feature, the critically acclaimed La La Land, which hasn’t left my mind since it premiered six years ago. However, instead of following a graceful Emma Stone through a snow-covered party, we join a wild Margot Robbie on the dance floor, where orgies and drugs entertain partygoers.  

Amid the grotesque and the glamorous, Babylon shows its characters struggling to understand their role in a changing film industry. Jean Smart, who plays the Hollywood journalist Elinor St. John, delivers a monologue featuring the film’s most enlightening dialogue in what is now one of my favorite scenes of the year. “It’s bigger than you,” she tells Pitt’s character Jack Conrad. Conrad’s new projects are failing to please audiences; his career is in free fall. At this moment, Elinor finally puts into words how insignificant the character’s ambitions are in the face of the almighty cinematic form. No matter how dedicated actors are or how much love they are shown by audiences, cinema can and will advance without individual stars. Babylon’s message is finally laid out on the table, directing the audience to the inevitable doom of its characters.  

 Still, not every risk in Babylon pays off—in one of the most crucial and emotional moments in the film, Chazelle places an unexpected montage that seeks to honor the past, present, and future of cinema. Due to its awkward placement in the film, this moment feels less like a homage and more like an unnecessary film festival trailer. Not even Hurwitz’s electric score is enough to make this scene as majestic as Chazelle intended it to be. This montage has become, amongst audiences and critics, one of the most divisive moments on screen this year. 

Every storyline in Babylon demonstrates the challenges of life as an artist. The film’s most prominent flaw, then, is its weak commentary on the additional obstacles that historically marginalized artists face. Babylon doesn’t want to hit you in the head with a lecture on the hardships these artists endured, so the narrative instead leaves the complexities of their lives unexplored. The film doesn’t flesh out Li Jun Li’s character, Fay Zhu, denying her any substantial character development. Babylon shows how Zhu’s sexuality is celebrated as entertainment—until, that is, Hollywood deems her sexuality to be no longer socially acceptable and casts Zhu aside. Li only returns for a scene in which Brad Pitt’s character has yet another existential crisis. The storyline leaves her motivations, goals, and fears in the backdrop. Fay Zhu’s scenes work to advance the story of others but do little for her growth. She is one more artist consumed by change. However, she was never in the same boat as the other characters. She wasn’t used for her talent; she was famous because Hollywood fetishized her race and sexuality. Babylon doesn’t create enough space to reflect on these distinctions and therefore misses out on an opportunity to create more nuanced characters. 

The film doesn’t fulfill all of its ambitions, but even when it falters, Babylon’s world is captivating enough that you will not want to look away. The film’s commitment to spectacle is admirable, and Chazelle’s focused direction allows the performances to pierce through the extravagant environment of 1900s Hollywood. Babylon delivers a heartfelt love letter to historical cinema while shining a light on the soul-crushing realities of working in the film industry. However, the film makes only a feeble attempt to show the realities of being a person from a marginalized community during the 20th century and how racism and homophobia affected people’s artistry. Some will join Chazelle in its marvelous journey through cinema and others will just be weirded out. Even if you end up hating it, Babylon will surely have you glued to your seat, amazed at cinema’s endless possibilities. 

 Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, rated R, was released in theaters on December 23, 2022.