Book of Eli, The (United States, 2010)

January 13, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Book of Eli, The Poster

Arguably, the international fascination with the apocalypse has never been bigger than it is today, and it has resulted in films like Knowing, The Road, 2012, and The Book of Eli arriving in theaters within a 12-month window. The movies have different vantage points, ideas, and themes, but their common thread - the end of the world - makes one wonder if there is such a streak of pessimism in today's society that a dire event of this nature provides compelling escapism. In staking out its place in an increasingly crowded field, The Book of Eli provides audiences with a parable advocating faith as the path through darkness. The words of the Bible will not be silenced as long as there are lips to speak them and ears to hear them.

The problem with The Book of Eli is that the narrative isn't a match for its sentiments. The script feels like it's an iteration or two short of a final draft. For about 3/4 of the running length, the movie holds together reasonably well - there are some hiccups but those are the sort of things one expects in a post-apocalyptic movie. Unfortunately, it all falls apart during the final half hour, with an avalanche of implausibilities, contrivances, and hurried resolutions that generate a bad aftertaste. One senses that more thought and a polished screenplay could have taken viewers to essentially the same place without all of the bumps and potholes that make The Book of Eli's final act an uneven and occasionally unpleasant ride.

Often, post-apocalyptic movies are filmed using desaturated color, but The Hughes Brothers take this technique to an extreme that results in The Book of Eli having a specific aesthetic. It's virtually black-and-white. There are times when a little color is allowed to peek through, as if to remind us that the movie isn't really monochromatic, but it might as well have been filmed with the same stock utilized in the '30s and '40s. It is effective and evocative and makes the bleakness of the world seem more forceful and immediate. There are some stylish shots, such as an early fight scene which is presented almost entirely in silhouette - black figures seen struggling against a bright backdrop. The almost complete absence of dialogue for the first 15 minutes allows us to focus on the visuals, and it gets The Book of Eli off to an uncommonly strong start. Unfortunately, the good will purchased at the beginning doesn't last all the way to the end.

The back story is muddled. The Book of Eli transpires 30 years after a cataclysmic event depopulates most of the planet, but the movie is unclear about the specifics. On several occasions, a "war" is referenced, and in one instance, the implication is that the conflict was motivated by religion (hence the mass burning of Bibles by the survivors). The flash-blindness of some characters is consistent with what can occur from observing a nuclear blast. However, there are no indications of radiation sickness and the general pattern of destruction seems more consistent with a general global disaster. There's also an odd passage of dialogue about the sky opening up and the sun coming toward the Earth. Ultimately, as in most post-apocalyptic movies, the cause of humanity's near extinction is irrelevant, but it would be appreciated for the subject to be approached with a degree of consistency.

Eli (Denzel Washington) is a modern-day prophet. He walks the Earth, heading West, with the last known copy of the Bible in his backpack. God has informed him to proceed to a place where the Word can take root in this new world, and woe be to anyone who gets in his way. Eli has superhero-like skills with a scimitar and is equally proficient with guns. His travels take him to a town that's like a place out of the Old West, populated by outlaws and the people they prey upon, and lorded over by a marshal-like figure named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie is an ambitious fellow who believes the Bible can be employed as a weapon to win the hearts and minds of the undertrodden and allow him to build a local empire. Eli isn't interested in joining forces with Carnegie, so he ends up on the run, accompanied by Solara (Mila Kunis), an attractive young woman whose life he saves.

The actors are all fine, but The Book of Eli lacks a standout performance. Denzel Washington is credible as a solitary figure who strides with a larger-than-life gait through the crumbling wreckage of a world where faith has been lost. Gary Oldman, who has perfected a pattern for playing the heavy, avoids going so far over the top that we're tempted to laugh at him. Mila Kunis looks too comely and clean to have been raised in the cesspool where she's living, but that's usually the case with attractive actresses in movies like this. The demands of the role prove to be within her range, which is perhaps surprising considering she has been thus far pigeonholed into more lightweight parts.

The Book of Eli draws inspiration from three sources: the Western, the road movie, and the superhero action film. There are times when it's as if the Hughes Brothers are channeling Sergio Leone, not the least of which occurs when Eli and Carnegie's henchman (played by Ray Stevenson) face each other across a stretch of barren street. All that's missing are the tumbleweeds. Eli is on a journey and his trek brings him in contact with a variety of odd characters (most end up dead). And his powers, which include incredible aptitude in hand-to-hand struggles, unerring accuracy with a gun, and seeming invulnerability to bullets, would make Batman envious.

There are things to appreciate about The Book of Eli. The Hughes Brothers' depiction of future Earth is suitably bleak - especially the images of the Golden Gate Bridge. Their direction of the action scenes is crisp and kinetic, and does not rely on fast cuts and and editing-room assembly to make the fights seem fast and furious. There's also an undercurrent of dark humor that occasionally surfaces, as in a scene featuring a cameo by Michael Gambon. The film is never uninteresting, even when its storyline turns preposterous. The Book of Eli is a decidedly mixed bag and not the most distinguished entry into the rapidly growing genre of which it finds itself a member.

Book of Eli, The (United States, 2010)

Director: The Hughes Brothers
Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals
Screenplay: Gary Whitta
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Atticus Ross
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2010-01-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1