Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Babylon Pilot (United Kingdom, 2014)


One of the great things about Danny Boyle’s work is that it’s so damned colourful. Even when times are tough and the characters are going through hell, there’s always technicolour and light and thumping music. Ok, maybe not in 28 Days Later, but in the majority of his movies. It helps us digest some of the bleaker issues that he explores in films like Trainspotting or Sunshine. Likewise, Boyle’s new TV cop drama-comedy, Babylon, raises some serious questions about the anarchic information culture we live in, but it’s never a deflating experience because it’s delivered with lashings of humour and energetic action. Despite the Police Show standard-issue blue, grey and yellow palette, Babylon is as fun and colourful as ever.

The concept is simple: At a time when there is no such thing as centralised control of information, the best that any organisation can do to protect itself is to hang on for dear life and try not to make too many mistakes that will come back to bite it. In Babylon, that organisation is the London police, and the first episode covers a day in the life of the force – both on the ground and in the command centre. In particular, it is the first working day for the new Communications Director, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), an American PR hot-shot recruited after some big successes in the online world and at a recent TED talk. Incidentally, the working day also covers a half-rotation of the international, 24-hour news cycle. The two worlds collide when a sniper goes on a random killing spree across London and the networked community calls for answers from the Police.

Boyle obviously has a nose for great stories, (Aron Ralston’s true life experience that lead to 127 Hours is one of a myriad examples), and the script from Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain is a sweet truffle. The dialogue pummels with humour and irony and Boyle takes this to the next level, via break-neck editing and swift but precise camera work.

Garvey’s message that ‘a 24-hour world requires 360-degrees of communication’ is like a mission statement for the show. I counted more than ten different types of footage in Babylon, over and above the standard camera shots, which were interspersed with (thankfully minimal) hand-held camera work. Babylon uses footage from surveillance cameras of all types, iPhones, TV screens, Skype connections, even vision from a heat-seeking drone. The multi-vision mash-up captures the sense of a world in which every moment at every location is captured and communicated. Darting between all this footage keeps the story alive and buzzing, and echoes the frantic pace of life being experienced by the members of the police force. The visual texture in this episode is stand-out.

Babylon’s characters are presented in nuanced, interesting ways, but there is a limit to how much more we learn about them as the story progresses. Of course this is television: character development is a slow burn. But perhaps there is also a commentary in there about the dehumanising power of networked media. In any case, apart from the traumatised cop Warwick, (Nick Blood), most of the characters tend not to have much of an inner life and function largely in relation to plot at this point. Which leaves you wanting so much more.

Ultimately, Babylon is a ripping way to spend 73 minutes. It’s also a fascinating discussion of control–­ of the networked media, of one’s temper, of one’s colleagues or subordinates… maintaining control in a crisis– Where each level of control is at the mercy of unpredictable variables. In other words, it is about the control that we delude ourselves into thinking we have. There are serious and alarming questions being raised in Babylon, but it’s Danny Boyle raising them, so it doesn’t hurt one bit. This will be a series to get excited about.


Babylon screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday, 1st August and Sunday, 3rd August. For more details head HERE.


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