There’s this rarely visited branch of cinematic scifi that’s predicated on one idea. Usually the idea is kind of silly, and the idea is always of some sort of ‘social relevance.’ For example it was the youth revolution in Logan’s Run and overpopulation in Soylent Green*. Movies like that always feel like Twilight Zone episodes, and not in the sense of episodes that end with twists but rather episodes that take an idea and really run with it for the distance. Book of Eli is one of those movies.
I’m going to spoil an aspect of Book of Eli - namely what the book is – but I don’t think that this spoiler is all important. It’s essentially given away in the ads, and the movie barely makes an effort to hide it. But if you’re waiting until seeing the film to find out what the book is, skip the rest of this review. It’s open season on the contents of the book.
So yeah, the book is the Bible. And the issue that Eli is coming at is the use and abuse of religion. In this post-apocalyptic world there is, as unlikely as it sounds, just one Bible remaining, at least in America. It’s a stretch, but the movie does attempt to at least address it, having someone say that since it was a religious conflict that brought nuclear destruction on the world the survivors decided to destroy all remaining Bibles. They were exceptionally thorough, it seems.
You buy that or you don’t. All these movies are like that – they present you with a big leap and you take it or the movie loses you. I opted to take it. By reducing the concept of religion down to one Bible, the film is able to take a look at the dueling concepts of faith and its uses. Gary Oldman’s character, a man trying to get a hold of the Bible to use it to control the post-nuke survivors, is the evil one while Denzel Washington’s Eli is the guy trying to get the Bible to a safe place (there’s more to it than that, but the destination would be a spoiler). There’s an intriguing concept here, and the biggest mistake the Hughes Brothers make with it is rendering it in black and white.
It’s obvious why they did. Gary Oldman as a villain is too delicious to deny. Having Oldman lose his shit as he tries to get that Bible at whatever cost is half the fun of the movie, and pretty much the whole point of hiring the actor. But when you reduce that role to a teeth-gnashing villain you lose the subtlety that’s possible. Why not have Oldman be a guy who really has the people’s best interests at heart? Why not have the conflict be between not a broad villain and a noble samurai of the wasteland but between two men who really think what they’re doing is right?
That’s one of the things that keeps Book of Eli from being a really great movie. Another is a missed action beat; the film’s second act needs one more action scene to keep it from feeling flabby. And another might be the complete removal of Mila Kunis; in a world where the every day scramble for survival means Denzel Washington kills a cat in the first scene she spends the entire movie looking like she’s running to get a latte. Her hair clean and beautiful, her every item of clothing immaculately mussed, she is the epitome of shabby chic, way too calculated and pretty to be remotely believable for a moment.
But Denzel is believable, and that’s what most of the movie boils down to. He’s a ragged ronin, wandering the end of the world with his blade and his seemingly preternatural skills. The Hughes Brothers give Denzel a number of awesome (in the most traditional sense of the word) action scenes, opting to shoot with the camera set way back, the better to capture the swoop and slice of the sword. Denzel is completely badass here, and he’s badass in a way that he never has been before, in the way that only samurai are badass. He’s calm and lethal and quick and decisive. He smells his foes from afar. He’s one of those characters who, when he faces off against the hundred enemies makes you feel bad for the hundred.
The Hughes Brothers have spent most of the last decade in the wilderness, and while I like them From Hell certainly bought them a deserved ticket out of the garden. Now they’re coming back and while Book of Eli doesn’t quite connect the way it wants to, it’s a solid effort. There’s some terrific action photography, and they paint an eerie blasted landscape. I’m sick of the grey ash aftermath look, but if it’s got to be done it should be done as well as it is here. And they’re aware of what’s come before, nodding nicely to other films in ways that don’t interrupt or call attention to themselves (look for a Boy and His Dog poster in the background of a shot, for instance). I like that; in a world where filmmakers insist not on homaging their influences but flat out sampling them, it’s refreshing. I think that the Hughes may have bitten off more than they could quite chew with this film, but they make a good show it. I hope it leads to them getting more and better gigs.
The movie’s end features some reveals and sequences that equally intrigue and annoy. There’s a big reveal in the final minutes that I loved and didn’t see coming; I especially enjoyed the way it connected Eli to a long line of characters. I just wish that for a movie predicated on one big idea the Hughes Brothers didn’t leave that one big idea half explored. Gary Whitta wrote the script, but there were extensive rewrites on sections of it; this kind of thing is what slowly deflates a movie, taking it away from any larger context and meaning. I don’t know what Whitta’s earliest drafts were like, but I have to assume the idea of religion as both a force for strength and a method of control were explored in ways that felt less Sunday night sermon and more Saturday night bullshit session.
Even with its weaknesses, Book of Eli is commendable for tackling some ideas while also maintaining a coolness that’s too rare in these days. It’s nice to see a truly kickass hero who isn’t a wise cracker, a kid learning the ropes, a misfit done good or any of the other boring Hollywood tropes that have become popular in the last few decades. It’s nice to see a movie with a kickass hero who is honorable and just and will fuck you up so bad you’ll be in two halves before you even know you’re dead.
* And yes, that’s simplifying both films. They do both touch on other issues, but their big concepts are based around those particular issues.