First Reactions to Babylon: A Mess or a Masterpiece?

If you work in entertainment journalism and live in Los Angeles, chances are you were at one of two events last night: the U.S. premiere of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (which played like gangbusters) or the first public screening for Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. However, while we’ve known of the rave reception for Glass Onion ever since it made a splash at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8.3/10 average rating and an 81 on Metacritic – not too shabby), Babylon has been one of the last unseen major awards contenders this season – aside from the rumored acclaim from test screenings that took place this spring – and now, we finally have a clearer idea of where it fits in this year’s race. Or do we?

“Divisive” seems to be the name of the game in 2022, and Babylon fits right alongside a slew of other awards hopefuls that have inspired impassioned reactions on both sides of the rating spectrum. For starters, there are those who simply feel the film is a flat-out flop. We can’t even call these “mixed” reviews – some of these are pans, plain and simple. Our own editor Scott Menzel is one who falls on this side of the fence, stating that, “Babylon is an ambitious mess of a film.”

Joshua Rothkopf, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly, echoed Menzel’s thoughts, tweeting that Babylon is “never not pounding and obvious and, finally, uninsightful.”

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly‘s digital editor, Yolanda Machado, argued that the film was actually “a purposeful mess,” and though “there [was] a storyline [she’s] questioning,” she praised the performances and Justin Hurwitz’s score.

Then, of course, some straight-up felt that the film completely succeeded in all it set out to do, unbothered by Babylon‘s bombastic and boisterous nature. Los Angeles Film Critics Association member and Variety contributor Courtney Howard called it a “dazzling, dizzying cacophony of demented depravity” – as a compliment – while Variety senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay described it as being “extravagant, decadent, and all together delightfully delicious.”

But, there were those who fell in the middle as well. Variety awards editor Clayton Davis felt that, at the very least, the “first half is great” and labeled the full feature as a “high octane, cocaine-inducing trip,” while The Playlist‘s Gregory Ellwood said that it’s “best when it’s being a straight out comedy,” as “the drama barely plays.”

So, where does this leave us? In a waiting game. Sure, Film Twitter and awards pundits will try to draw conclusions from this first collection of reactions, but let’s remember three things:

  1. This was one screening.
  2. These reactions are from journalists, not Academy voters.
  3. It’s only November 15th.

It’s never over ’til it’s over, and though there are undoubtedly some factors working against Babylon – that gargantuan runtime (over three hours long?!) and its graphic content (elephant shit, golden showers, and coke galore) – the rest of the film’s prestige-y package is pure Academy bait. It’s a story about Hollywood, showcasing the transition from the silent films to the talkies and revisiting the town’s oft-surveyed struggle to adapt in the late 20s/early 30s, made by and starring some of the hottest names in the industry. Even if reception remains divisive, it still has a path to major awards nominations (yes, including Best Picture), as long as the passion from those who do appreciate Chazelle’s vibrant vision is potent enough.

Margot Robbie and the cast of Babylon in Babylon

Case in point, during the “expanded line-up era,” a number of films that haven’t ended up “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes have still broken into Best Picture, such as:

  • 2009: The Blind Side (66%)
  • 2011: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (45%)
  • 2012: Les Misérables (69%)
  • 2018: Bohemian Rhapsody (60%), Vice (65%)
  • 2019: Joker (68%)
  • 2021: Don’t Look Up (56%)

If a film is a big enough hit – or if it simply has the “right” talent behind it – it can conjure up the passion for a Best Picture nomination (and others). So don’t go writing Babylon‘s awards obituary yet because, even though the jury’s still out on its commercial performance, it still has all the other “right stuff” to be taken seriously by The Academy. Who isn’t going to watch the new movie from Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie? And while it may not ultimately be the new The Revenant or 1917 – the last awards contender to debut in a given season that completely upends the race and becomes the new frontrunner – there’s another late-breaker that received similar reception upon release to compare it to that was also distributed by Paramount and starred Margot Robbie: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Yes, while The Wolf of Wall Street is sitting pretty with an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 7.8/10 average rating) and a 75 on Metacritic now, this three-hour-long crime comedy epic was initially similarly criticized for being “overindulgent” and “empty” by some critics in their first reactions to the film, and its graphic content also came under fire. One quote from The Charlotte Observer‘s Lawrence Toppman on Metacritic even stated, “Here’s something I never expected to say, something I doubt I’d have believed if someone else had said it to me: Martin Scorsese can make a three-hour movie without one fresh perspective or compelling character from end to end. The proof, for three agonizing hours, can be found in The Wolf of Wall Street.” Sound familiar? And yet, The Wolf of Wall Street ended up with five Oscar noms, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

I haven’t seen Babylon yet, so I can’t personally comment on whether it’s “opulence” really is “overindulgent” or not. But because I still have faith in this filmmaker and his cast and crew – and because there are enough positive reactions out there to provide hope for future passion in the industry – I caution throwing Babylon out of your predictions completely simply because a few reactions called it a “mess.” We do this dance every season, where a potential awards contender premieres with less-than-stellar notices and suddenly hundreds of awards hounds abandon it entirely, and yet, it still manages to net some major nominations when all is said and done (let’s not forget, Don’t Look Up was only one year ago). As always, practice patience and remember that we’ve got a lot of race left to run – and a lot of snakes to fight.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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