I am a big believer in a film owning its place in the world and being true to itself; sticking to its guns so to speak. If the goal of a film is to educate then it should strive to be educational. If the goal is to be funny it should darn sure make me laugh and laugh a lot. If the goal is to entertain then it should truly be entertaining. Obviously those movies that choose to handle tough subject matters are usually the ones that garner critical acclaim, but award nominations isn’t what it’s all about, at least not for every film. On the whole I think the first goal of the average film should be to entertain; to provide escape or release from the daily grind of real life. And if it’s done that then really I feel that’s all we should ask of it. So it is with “The Book of Eli.”
“Eli” drops us in the relatively near future, 30 years since “the war” tore a hole in the sky and the sun scorched the earth. What’s left behind is a desolate and bleak Earth on which an ever decreasing number of humans remain. Law, government, and the like are of the past, as are education and literacy. Everyone wears sunglasses in this scorched world and there is the obligatory lack of water as well as a large number of cannibals. (Though cannibalism is apparently frowned upon here, as opposed to the “everyone is doing it” position taken in “The Road.”) It is not a pretty world that “The Walker” aka Eli travels.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a guy who knows how to take care of himself, as I imagine you would have to become to survive 30 years in this world. He’s heavily armed (including a wicked sword) though you get the impression that he could probably handle himself just fine without any weaponry. Along with a sack full of weapons and a rechargeable MP3 player, Eli also carries a leather bound book from which he reads every day. That book, as it turns out, is the last remaining copy of the Bible on the planet. Having discovered this copy sometime after the hole-in-the-sky thing, Eli wanders the path set before him, looking for a place where the Bible can be at rest. The majority of this movie deals with the happenings after Eli stops in a “town” lorded over by a slumlord named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie realizes what is in Eli’s possession and begins a relentless pursuit to take the book from him, waging an all out war against the man.
“The Book of Eli” is far from perfect as far as action movies go. It is filled with clichés and is a bit “color by numbers.” This is one of those movies where you wonder, “Okay, what’s the twist going to be?” throughout the entire back half because you’ve seen this type of thing before so you know there’s going to be a twist. It is also, of course, highly unrealistic but seriously, has there ever been a realistic post-apocalyptic movie? The entire premise of this type of film is built on fantasy. The characters are pretty typical: virtuous hero, sly bad guy, bad guy’s right hand man, and helpless female who brings nothing to the story. Seriously, the female lead, played by Mila Kunis, is simply unnecessary. She is asked to do next to nothing and delivers appropriately. There are a lot of plot holes in what is a fairly jumpy plot line to begin with and I found there to be several wasted scenes which drives me crazy.
The biggest issue for me, however, was the seeming attempt to draw an R rating. A couple of edits here and there would have easily trimmed “Eli” down to a PG-13 rating but instead it feels like the directors (the Hughes brothers) went out of their way to ensure the R. That’s quite disappointing because in doing so they have alienated a large portion of the would-be audience. “Eli” is unashamedly Christian in nature. In fact I would say it is the most openly Christian film done by the mainstream that I have seen in quite some time, and maybe ever. It’s not just the whole “power of the Bible” thing or “screen religiousity” as I like to call it (meaning, cliché “this is how Christians would behave” acting). I’m talking very Christian ideas, quoting of fairly obscure Scripture, and open prayers that go far beyond the normal “movie prayer.” This is a film that the Christian community could have potentially rallied around but the R rating erased that opportunity, which is a shame.
Still, if the goal of “Eli” is to entertain the viewer, then it has succeeded. It is a very slick, (possibly overly) stylized portrayal of this potential future with strong action sequences that use very little CGI (something to be commended). The Hughes brothers do an excellent job of allowing the ominous landscape to become a focal point. More importantly, they hold to the world that they created and that’s a real key here. One of the biggest mistakes a director can make when he takes on a post-apocalyptic or sci-fi setting is to fall away from the reality he has created. The Hughes brothers don’t try to answer too many questions about why or how the world became this way and they tend to hold to what they have set forth as true in the world Eli inhabits. Gary Oldman is good, though perhaps a bit underused, and Denzel Washington is excellent. Eli is, clearly, a deeply religious, spiritual man and you can feel the connection Denzel had to his character. When he quotes Scripture it flows from his mouth not in the way a great actor would deliver it but the way a believer would and that makes a serious impact on the film. And the twist provides a great payoff and gives depth to the film as a whole. It does, however, make the films weaknesses stand out even more as you start to wonder if it could have been a great film instead of just a pretty good one.
I can’t spell apocalyptic,