Ah yes… the post-apocalyptic movie. Is there any film genre closer to my heart? (Besides revenge films, teen sex comedies, and sexy teen revenge films of course.) These movies posit a world after… a world scarred by war or disaster, a people changed by radiation or virus, a lawless wasteland where resources are rare and survival is a luxury. Movies like The Road Warrior, The Omega Man, The Wizard of Oz, and Planet of the Apes (forty-two year-old spoiler!) all present fantastic “what-if” scenarios filled with mutated humans, strange creatures, and perilous journeys through a devastated land we once called home. The common link between them is the presence of a lone hero, an outsider, on a quest for safety, for a cure, for a way back home. Or in the case of the new film from the Hughes brothers, it’s an epic quest to return an overdue library book…
It’s thirty years after a great flash ripped a hole in the sky, and the America we know has become a wasteland. Except New Jersey. That’s pretty much stayed the same. A man (Denzel Washington) who we’ll call Eli for the sake of simplicity wanders this new world with a very special tome and a singular purpose… and he’ll know exactly what that is once he finds it. He enters a small desert town in search of an engineer to charge up his iPod but instead finds trouble in the form of the town’s de facto ruler, Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie’s grip on the town is iron-clad, but his ambitions have led him to search for a book he remembers from before the war… a book that grants its wielder great sway over the people. A very special tome, you could say…
Eli catches Carnegie’s attention when he decimates a roomful of his men with lightning-quick martial arts moves and a very big knife. Forced to spend the night in town Eli makes the acquaintance of Carnegie’s step-daughter Solara (an out of her element Mila Kunis) which leads to Carnegie discovering that Eli may in fact be carrying his lost Amazon order. The stage is set for a face off between the two men who essentially want the book for the same purpose but for somewhat different reasons. Eli has been making his way west with the book for three decades, Carnegie has been searching for it almost as long.
The opening scene of The Book of Eli takes an early lead for my favorite of the year. A hairless cat wanders through an ashen forest before spotting a human corpse. It eyes the area warily before making it’s way towards an easy meal. The camera pans away to a mound in the snowy ash and our eyes slowly come to realize there’s a man sitting there, eyes and head covered with protective gear, with a large bow and arrow held taught and aimed towards the unaware feline. The scene is stylish and brilliant in it’s execution, and it tells us without a single word what kind of world we’re about to enter.
And that world is a gritty, violent, and lawless one. It’s the apocalypse by way of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and the Hughes brothers, in their first film since 2001’s underrated From Hell, capture its raw beauty and foulness with style. The handful of action scenes in the movie are all fast and frenetic exercises in brutality and overkill. From a fight between Eli and a gang of thugs seen only in silhouette to an incredibly cool “single-shot” gunfight that tears a small house to pieces, the action is wild and kinetic fun. Kudos to the brothers Hughes as well as their fight choreographer for giving us brawls that we can watch in wide angle instead of via choppy, edited jumbles.
As good as the setup and action are however, the screenplay by Gary Whitta wants to layer in a powerful affirmation about faith and the necessity of God that seems both forced and contradicted by the end of the film. Eli hears a voice that tells him what to do and where to go, and he has a definite opinion as to the owner of that voice. He mentions that he’s on a mission from God and then proceeds to drive his car straight through a mall claim that he and those with him are protected against death. And this is all in the service of the book in his possession… a book that we’re told is required reading if the scattered survivors can have any hope of rebuilding a worthwhile society. It’s more than implied that without it we’re doomed to nothing but death and degradation. To be fair, there’s also a throw away line about how the book itself may have been the cause of the war, but the overwhelming push is towards the book being humanity’s salvation.
The identity of the book in question should be obvious to all, but in an effort to avoid possible spoilers I’ll refrain from naming it. Suffice to say you may have a copy in the drawer beside your bed right now. Especially if you’re currently residing in a hotel. That’s right, it’s the most ubiquitous book in the world and Eli’s carrying the only remaining copy. Uh huh. That’s about as believable as it taking someone thirty years to walk across the United States. Oh, wait…
He may be pushing 56 years old, but Washington still makes for a very believable action lead. The fight scenes show him to be more than capable of fast and decisive moves, and he’s still a charismatic bastard who can charm and disarm you with a slight smile. Oldman is also brilliant as the erudite and power-hungry Carnegie, and where some actors would devolve quickly into caricature while playing the villain he never does. The weak link here is Kunis. She’s a fine actress with strong comedic skills, but she has yet to find the right material outside of that genre. Her transition from barmaid to something more is wholly unconvincing, and it has as much to do with the character as it does with Kunis’ performance. In a world filled with dirty and grimy people she stands out looking like any cute, young hottie heading to the mall.
The Book of Eli is an entertaining flick with a strong eye for action and style, but the story is a little lacking. On one hand it’s similar to every other post-apocalyptic film that came before with it’s lone wanderer, roving bands of baddies, and questionable hygiene habits. That’s not a bad thing either. The movie doesn’t have to break new ground for the genre to be a fun ride, but that ride goes off the rails with a message that becomes more heavy-handed as the film progresses. Adding to the film’s trouble is an ending that features two revelations (pun intended) that seem in direct contradiction to each other. Oh, and one of them is just plain silly. Proselytizing Mad Max aside, The Book of Eli is worth seeing for the action and the presence of Washington and Oldman. Just don’t be surprised if there’s someone standing at the theater exit when you leave trying to hand you a pamphlet about the fate of your very soul.
The Upside: Fight scenes are fast and brutal; action is solid; single shot during house attack scene is very cool; Washington is charismatic even as a dour and violent old man; Oldman continues to make a great villain; the interlude with Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour is fun.
The Downside: Kunis and her character just don’t fit; central conceit is ludicrous; ending presents two revelations, one of which goes against the entire message of the movie but is never acknowledged; you dropped your Jesus tract in my apocalypse!
On the Side: First-time screenwriter Gary Whitta used to be an editor for PC Gamer magazine.