“The Book of Eli” will seem familiar to those who saw “The Road,” another post apocalyptic film (“After Armageddon,” March). Both movies are photographed with a brown sepia wash that emphasizes the bleakness of a landscape destroyed by bombs and ozone depletion. Both are populated by gritty people transporting their worldly goods in backpacks and shopping carts as they scavenge for food and blankets.
Both show marauding bands of thugs patrolling what is left of the highway (probably Interstate 70 in each version), raping, pillaging, and cannibalizing those who are weaker and unarmed.
“The Road” follows a man and his son as they make their way toward the east coast; “The Book of Eli” follows a man traveling alone to the west coast. But Eli (Denzel Washington) isn’t entirely alone; he carries with him a Bible, perhaps the last one in existence, and he is guided by the voice of God, so in that sense one could say that a father and son are also traveling together in this film.
The biggest difference between the two is that in “The Book of Eli” people have begun to reestablish towns similar to those in the Old West, where he who controls guns and water controls the community. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) is one of those men. He knows where a natural spring percolates fresh water, and he trades that water for whatever people are willing to barter. No one argues about fairness or price controls. The price is whatever two people agree upon, enforced by a gun.
Carnegie commands a posse of tough guys who scavenge the countryside, armed with weapons and transported by motorcycles and armored cars. (The film does not explain the source of their gasoline.) He has the power that comes from force and property, but he is look- ing for a specific book that will give him even more power. Eventually we learn that the book he seeks is the Bible. He seems to think of it as a book of charms that will teach him how to perform miracles. He also says that if he owns the book, dimwitted people who believe in religion will be in his power. In short, the filmmakers seemed unable to decide whether their Book of Eli would be truly powerful or merely an opiate of the people. This indecision mars the film.
When Jesus talked to the Jews in the 1st century A.D., they wondered whether the Old Testament prophet Elijah had come again, as some believed had been prophesied. Could this mysterious traveler be that “Eli”? Eli does seem to receive power from the book he has carried for 30 years (it’s a long trek west!). He is protected from danger, even bullets, and possesses incredible skills as a fighter. Viewers who complained that “The Road” had no climax and no action will be well satisfied by the martial arts displayed in this film, as Eli skillfully and forcefully defends himself and the book he carries. (Washington was trained for the role by Bruce Lee’s protege, Dan Inosanto, and performed all his own stunts.) I had some problems at first with accepting the idea of a monk like character being also a killing machine, but Armageddon is a war, after all; someone has to do the killing, and it might as well be the good guy in hand-to-hand combat.
In the town Eli meets a young girl, Solara (Mila Kunis), whom Carnegie tries to use as bait for gaining control of the book. When Eli isn’t interested in a roll in the hay and insists that he has to continue his journey, Solara begs him to take her with him, saying, “I hate it here.” Eli responds, “Then change it.” When Carnegie tells Eli he has no choice but to give up the book, Eli responds, “There is always a choice,” as he rolls into fighting stance. Lines like these give the film some substance and a clear connection to ideas of liberty.
But the film is not as profound as it tries to be, or as it could have been. The book of Ezra in the Old Testament shows the power that a book had in an earlier post-war setting, after the Jews had been captured and carried away into Babylon, and their land had been destroyed. Isaiah had prophesied that a king named Cyrus would help to rebuild the Jewish temple. Cyrus evidently felt the power of the prophecy and encouraged the Jews to return to their home- land. He even provided 5,000 vessels of gold and silver for the project. After the city walls were rebuilt, the Jews (50,000 of them!) stood in the streets and listened with joy as Ezra read to them from the scriptures for the first time in many years. That’s power.
Seeing Carnegie change as significantly as King Cyrus did would have made “The Book of Eli” far more satisfying. Instead, the filmmakers rely for their climax on a twist at the end of the story – the kind that makes you want to view the film one more time, just to see whether it works, like the surprise ending in “The Sixth Sense.” But in that film, the twist was essential to under- standing the story. In “The Book of Eli,” the twist is surprising, but unnecessary. Focusing on the surprise and its improbable implications, rather than on the book and its promised importance, keeps “Eli” from being a better film.
The film’s tagline says, “Some will kill to have it. Others will kill to protect it.” I want to know more about a book with that kind of significance! But in the end, if it merely sits on a shelf, what good is it? Although the film is well made and packed with action, it loses faith in its own premise, and fails as a result.