David Lynch’s Eraserhead, godfather of cult movies, didn’t attract the same blockbuster audience as Star Wars, though both debuted in 1977, and both have influential legacies. Whereas producers, studios and, hell, everyone else have copied Star Wars hoping to emulate its financial success, artists — writers, directors, visual artists and so on — are the ones who want to emulate Eraserhead’s style and mood. Such directors as Stanley Kubrick, Mel Brooks, John Waters, and George Lucas himself have all expressed admiration for the innovation of the film.
The sci-fi TV series Babylon 5 has a similar legacy to Eraserhead. Other genre luminaries — Ronald D. Moore, George R.R. Martin — often cite the show as having a profound influence on their own work. Though never a major hit during its initial run from 1994 to 1998, its devoted cult following and innovation of formatting a TV series as an ultra-serialized novel keep it active in the zeitgeist. The X-Files might have won more Emmys, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might have attracted more viewers, but Babylon 5 has an effect that rivals the legacy of either.
Now Babylon 5 returns with Babylon 5: The Road Home, a new animated movie penned by series creator J. Michael Straczynski that reunites the surviving members of the original cast. Set in the final season of the TV series, the story follows John Sheridan (Bruce Boxlitner) as he oversees the inauguration of a new alien power source. Said engine uses tachyon particles — that is, particles that exist outside of space-time — which sends Sheridan leaping through a series of parallel universes, where he encounters other major B5 characters and visits alternate versions of some of the show’s biggest storylines.
A Strange Loop
It’s difficult to discuss the plot of The Road Home without giving away major elements of both the film and the TV series. In a sense, the plot doesn’t matter: since this midquel concerns alternate versions of the characters, viewers should intuit that it doesn’t have major consequences for the end of the series.
For that matter, The Road Home doesn’t even have major consequences in and of itself. Sheridan’s leaping between universes gives the film an episodic feel. The characters, settings, and objectives keep changing every few minutes. That makes for a frustrating story at times, since, no matter what the danger, viewers figure out that Straczynski will push the reset button again, and Sheridan will find himself in new circumstances.
The Road Home has two other recent pop culture corollaries. Like Marvel’s What If?, the film will play best to major fans of the show, who can understand every single minutia of change from universe to universe. Viewers coming in cold might enjoy the action and visual flare of the film, but without foreknowledge of the story, won’t understand how Straczynski wants to subvert his characters or plot. As with What If?, The Road Home also uses animation to telegraph a more surrealist mood to viewers. Under the direction of Matt Peters, the Babylon 5 universe has never felt so sprawling or so strange.
The movie also channels another long-delayed franchise entry: The Matrix Resurrections. As with that film, The Road Home wants to send love to longtime devotees of Babylon 5; it’s a nostalgic cast reunion that revisits the show’s high points, and that has a buried purpose. Matrix director Lana Wachowski has said she made the fourth film as a way of confronting her grief after the death of her parents. For her, the Matrix story ended with the third movie. The fourth isn’t a new chapter in the saga, so much as an epilogue to it — a way of sending love to the fans and her collaborators on the franchise.
We get the feeling that Straczynski — who, we should mention, worked on the series Sense8 with Wachowski — wants to do the same thing here. A number of key cast members of Babylon 5 have passed on since the show ended, including Mira Furlan, Michael O’Hare, Stephen Furst, Jerry Doyle, Andreas Katsulas, and Jeff Conway. The Road Home and its animated format gives Straczynski a chance to revisit their characters.
Like The Matrix Resurrections, The Road Home feels less like a story about its main character than a meta document about its creator. This isn’t John Sheridan’s story, it’s Joe Straczynski’s — note how the pair have the same initials. The Road Home allows the series’ creator to work with his friends and pay respects to others, all under the auspice of an adventure.
Babylon 5: Resurrections
Detractors of the film will argue — correctly — that The Road Home doesn’t have real dramatic stakes. But that’s not the point. As Tolkien did with his Lord of the Rings appendices and Unfinished Tales, Straczynski doesn’t seek to extend or undo the ending of his epic. The Road Home represents a catharsis for its creator, a chance to say goodbye and spend 75 minutes with the characters that helped define his career. Straczynski has long cited the work of Tolkien as an inspiration for Babylon 5. 30 years later, that influence still shows.
The Road Home also offers Straczynski and company an opportunity to play with shiny new toys. Babylon 5 broke new ground on television by using computer graphics to portray the show’s space battles and alien environments. These effects looked ridiculous even in the context of their time, and likely played a role in confining Babylon 5 to cult status rather than mainstream success. Now, Straczynski and Peters, armed with advanced CGI and 4K resolution, give the B5 universe a detail and menace it couldn’t enjoy before. Alien creatures and spaceships couldn’t boast this level of definition or scope back in 1998.
The Road Home lets Straczynski show viewers what he had in mind all along, and hints at the potential for the long-in-development-hell Babylon 5 reboot. Whether as a streaming or film series, technology can finally do justice to the Babylon 5 story. Here is a sleeping giant — one that, when awoken, could finally attract the mainstream success it long deserved.
For now, though, longtime fans of Babylon 5 and sci-fi lovers looking for a fun space opera should take delight in The Road Home’s fusion of homage and spectacle. The movie doesn’t seek to milk the legacy of the show, so much as honor it: Straczynski has told his story, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever stopped living with his creation. Like his main character, the show’s creator wonders, “What If.” When it comes to the Babylon 5 universe, Hollywood should ask the same question.
Babylon 5: The Road Home lands on Digital, 4K UHD and Blu-ray on August 15, 2023.