by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Imagine, if you will, the G7 summit, a real-world meeting of the leaders of the world's so-called “top economic superpowers”, which is to say: France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, the European Union, and the United States. Now, imagine that these leaders all got together and, for reasons that some cranky anime critics would describe as “absurd to the point of being meaningless”, had to come up with some kind of meaningful and legally compelling decision as to whether suicide should become legal in their respective countries (and, by extension of the countries' political power, the rest of the world). Never mind that such a summit would in no way have the power, responsibility, or even the inclination to do something like that – in this imaginary world of ours, notions such as “logic” and “common sense” are useless, and should be immediately discarded. All that's left is to have those world leaders hash out such quantifiable and easily-debated topics as “the basic source and definitions of ‘good’ and 'evil'” and “whether or not it is possible to identify and meaningfully examine the meaning of life”.
Of course, this patently ridiculous thought experiment is a very real thing. It is called “Babylon”, and let me all tell you today: Babylon is bad. It isn't just that “The Curtain Rises” is bad (though it absolutely, one-hundred percent is). Having sat through all twenty-two miserable minutes of Babylon's penultimate episode, I feel comfortable in calling the shot now: Babylon, as an entire anime entity, is really quite terrible. And not in the fun, pulpy kind of bad it threatened to be once the veneer of its earlier episodes wore off, either; at least when the story was confined to Shiniki, Babylon had the opportunities to revel in its own shlock factor, pumping out very entertaining guilty pleasure thrillers even when its plot was threatening to collapse under the weight of its vague ambitions. Now, though, Babylon has become the kind of bad that is impossible to ignore or forgive, because it is the kind that is devoid of any redeeming qualities, ironic, sincere, or otherwise. Babylon has become almost unwatchable in its boringness.
Not for lack of trying, mind you. Clearly, the creative team behind this doomed project realized that a devoting a full half hour of having Arthur Wood and the G7 Gang go on about Freshman philosophy level nonsense was perhaps asking a bit much of the audience. “The Curtain Rises” chooses, then, to go all out with an incoherent visual palette to serve as a backdrop to the brain-boiling inanity that the poor voice actors have to struggle through, and the results would be hilarious if they weren't so stupid. For a good ten minutes alone, we watch as Wood and the other representatives float aimlessly through space, sometimes even upside-down, as they spew their theories out loud to themselves. In an embarrassingly desperate attempt to inject some kind of life into the conversation, President Wood's revelation is accompanied by a stream of effervescent neon lights and pompous sound effects – it's as if he is literally being consumed with some kind of divine revelation, even though all he and the others have discovered is that “Decoding good and evil sure is hard!”
I will not bother with breaking down the flow and course of this conversation. The terrible-dialogue, when combined with Amazon's clunky translation efforts, has resulted in a script that is utterly devoid of plot, momentum, subtext, or direction – to explain what happens in this episode would be meaningless, because literally nothing of importance happens. In the beginning, we meet Arthur Wood (from America), Flora Lowe (from the UK), Gustave Luca (from France), Dan Carrey (from Canada), Toshio Fuzukawa (from Japan), Otto Herrigel (from Germany), and Luciano Cannavaro (from Italy). They talk about suicide and ethics and whatnot for twenty minutes, coming to precisely zero conclusion, and just when Aurthur seems like he's about to make some kind of decision, he gets called away because Ai Magase wants to talk to him on the phone.
Now, I know that there are some out there who might be thinking: “A political summit where all of the big-wigs sit around and make meaningless conversation, ultimately accomplishing nothing? That sounds like ace satire to me, James!” This is a very good point, and the precise kind of point that Babylon could have made in the span of just a couple of minutes, or even in a handful of throwaway lines. “I'm sorry, Zen,” is what Mr. Wood might say. “The G7 summit tried to come to a conclusion, but we couldn't even figure out where to start.” Sure, that might have worked. Babylon, though, has been so obsessed with showing off its characters' pontifications for so many episodes now that I can only conclude that the story is either incompetent, ill-intentioned, or both.
To put it another way: I genuinely believe that Babylon thinks it is saying something profound about the nature of good and evil when it shows one of its characters, a middle-aged politician who is floating aimlessly through space, ask: “Are you saying that babies know good from evil the moment they are born?” This is the line of questioning that might get a solid group conversation started in an Introduction to Ethics class. A very smart, well-written, and insightful show could even take this as a starting point and run with it to unforeseen places (this is where I insist that everyone reading this review go and watch The Good Place at this very moment). Babylon's problem is that, for the longest time, it has assumed itself to be oh so very clever, yet in episodes like this one it only proves how embarrassingly limited its knowledge and perspective really is.
Odds and Ends
• It is impossible for me to catalog all of the best so-bad-its-just-awful dialogue in “The Curtain Rises”, because then I would be retyping the entire script, which I'm pretty sure would get me fired. Instead, enjoy these choice excerpts: “If no one existed except for yourself, then good and evil would not exist.” “That's not true. Even if there were only one person in this world, good and evil would clearly exist.” “If the manifestation of good and evil is due to the group, then good and evil might exist for animals that live in groups as well, like elephants and monkeys.” “Do you really think that elephants are aware of evil, sin, and guilt? Maybe that's just what we outsiders think…”
• At one point, Flora from the UK makes a passionate argument that the only moral people are the wealthy elite, and that it is by the will of Her Majesty the Queen that they do their Godly duty and educate the stupid masses about why killing yourself is, in fact, bad. I don't even have anything to say about that, except that it should tell you everything you need to know about what Babylon has devolved into.
• Oh, we get confirmation that the title of the show is very much a reference to Ai being the titular “Whore” of Babylon, and that the G7 summit is the 7-headed beast of lore that will bring destruction to all mankind. Or something like that. Either way, it's dumb.
Babylon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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