The Hughes Brothers have tackled many eras with their work, from the 19th Century in “From Hell,” the 1970’s in “Dead Presidents,” present day in “Menace to Society,” to the future with their latest film “The Book of Eli.” All of their films have the central theme of a sort of urban decay, but this latest film takes it to the extreme. The setting of “The Book of Eli” is thirty years after a nuclear war, in a time where amenities are scarce and the only urban areas are desolate, nihilistic dystopias. Even though they have traveled through time with their movies none could ever be called timeless, “Eli” being no exception.
The title comes from the book that Eli (Denzel Washington) carries around, and reads from, dare I say it, religiously. Without ruining much the book is a King James Bible, and Eli protects it with his life having been sent on a quest to bring it ever West by some mysterious voice we are supposed to assume is God. From the advertisements one might have gotten the misconception that this film is all about action, but actually it is all about proselytizing. Leaning heavily toward the Protestant and Evangelical crowd, it being a King James after all, the film has a message, though it seems a very narrow, and not well thought through one.
As Eli encounters the locals of a ramshackle little berg he lets loose his inner killer, hacking off limbs with a rather impressive machete, proving to be a formidable opponent. This catches the eye of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the ruthless ruler of the town, who happens to be looking for just the book that Eli is protecting. In a turn of Marxism, “Religion is the Opiate of the masses,” Carnegie thinks that he can use the Bible to capture the hearts and minds of the hoi-poloi thus making them easily ruled by his Draconian hand. This is the crux of the film, is religion a weapon or a savior? According to writer Gary Whitta it can be both depending on who is preaching.
As Eli, along with conscripted sidekick Solara (Mila Kunis), fights to protect the book the action becomes much less Protestant and more Catholic, in fact the blood and slaughter play more like one of the Crusades than a pilgrimage. The seeming contradiction of a man on a quest from God who is in fact a brutal killer is evident by the second scene where Eli stabs a man whom he has already rendered impotent.
Finally when we get tot he end the twist of the film is ludicrous in M. Night Shyamalan proportions. It comes without any warning, and looking back on the rest of the movie it seems, to be extremely generous, improbable. Existing only to give Eli’s crusade more weight the twist actually serves to make the script more laughable.
While the final scene tries to put the King James Bible on equal footing of the Quar’an and the Torah it is obvious which team the film makers are playing for. According to Eli this Book is the last of its kind, the others having been burned after the “Great Flash” because some misguided souls thought it the cause of all the trouble. So much is made of its power, and how the world is suffering due the lack of its prevalence, that it is hard to feel like you are not in Sunday school.
But beyond all of the religious didacticism the action of the film, what put people in the seats, is never all that interesting. Even the center piece of the film, a digitally enhanced long take of gunfire and explosions, comes of as cheap, a sort of poor man’s sequence from “Children of Men.”
Not even Denzel Washington’s ample skill as a Thespian can save this picture. He tries, as does a lot of the all star cast, but to no avail. A cameo by Michael Gambon as an outsider is much too silly, and the camp of the scene sticks out of the overly serious tone like a sour thumb. Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, and Malcolm McDowell all have small parts, but none have much to do with their roles besides obligatory expositional characters that are intrinsic to the plot, but are in and out when they aren’t needed to propel the story forward. Extremely out of place is Mila Kunis whose beauty never seems to jive with dirty, broken setting, and in most scenes looks like she stepped out of an Urban Outfitters ad.
Even though the film is structured like a Western it falls prey to many Post-Apocalyptic cliches. The desaturated palate that dominates every frame gets tedious quickly mostly because the quality is so low. In most scenes the use of green screen is painfully obvious, and in others the gradient filter happy cinematography, courtesy of blockbuster veteran Don Burgess, is just distracting. The decrepitude of the sets, and the basic ideas behind the production design scream “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” and “Waterworld.” Putting a poster of “A Boy and His Dog” in the background does not make the movie good, it just reminds us that this type of film has been done better before.
El Luchador Rating: 1 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)