Thomas Hobbes conveyed in a single sentence what director Alejandro González Iñárritu spends 142 minutes intimating-that our lives in nature are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
If that's not clear enough for you, or if your Christmas season starts out too jolly, then by all means subject yourself to an afternoon of Babel's worldview, in which personal responsibility counts for nothing and life is little more than a few respites of happiness in a sea of despair.
By weaving together four stories from all ends of the globe, Iñárritu endeavors to show us how cultural misunderstandings result in tragedy and how quickly government policies can ruin individual lives. From an emotional standpoint, the approach works. We can't help but feel guilty for our collective inadequacies.
Yet on a practical level it's hard not to see that nearly every calamity in Babel (rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use) could have been avoided had the characters exercised better judgment. A goatherd could have educated his preteen sons on the proper use of firearms (or better yet, not given them charge of a dangerous weapon). A nanny could have left the fiesta at a reasonable time rather than wait till hours before dawn.
Similarly, the globe-trotting parents (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) might have considered whether it was wise to leave their children in the care of someone they knew was in the country illegally. In fact, the only entity assigned blame in this comedy of horrors is the U.S. government when it sensibly assumes it might have a terrorist situation on its hands.
Iñárritu conspicuously dedicates Babel to his children-but what parental sentiments would possess him to wish them such a legacy? From the opening (and completely gratuitous) scene of a Moroccan boy gratifying himself after peeping on his adopted sister, to a deaf-mute Japanese girl offering herself sexually to every man with whom she comes in contact, the overriding theme remains one of gross isolation.
If nothing else, Babel's relentless pessimism reminds us how rare, and how vital, the Good News really is.
-Megan Basham is a freelance film critic