REVIEW: The Book of Eli (Bleak Chic with a Christian Twist)

The Book of Eli film poster ©2010 Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved.

Picture this: a mysterious Man with No Name comes into a tiny desert town that’s dominated by a manipulative and powerful bossman. He has something the bossman wants and won’t give it up – and No Name is an almost supernaturally powerful fighter; you really don’t want to mess with him. Before the battle between Good and Evil is over, the Man with No Name has decimated the bossman’s thug-army and brought the evil leader low, the dusty little settlement is either burned to the ground or better off than before he arrived, and off he goes, continuing his mysterious journey – always in motion, never at peace. Except for a tie-‘em-up ending that’s tacked on to the back of The Book of Eli, that’s pretty much what you’ve got here: a post-apocalyptic tale of the mysterious hero vs. the bully prince, just like an old Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Just replace Eastwood with Denzel Washington, replace the Old West with the near future after a global catastrophe, cast a painfully over-the-top Gary Oldman as the Bad Boss, give newcomer Mila Kunis the inevitable pretty girl/spunky sidekick role, and you’re golden. Or at least should have been. Unfortunately for the viewing audience, there’s more Sergio Leone than Cormac McCarthy in this ponderous and unconvincing post-apocalyptic allegory. For a full review, please click “continue reading”.

REVIEW: The Book of Eli Grade: C

If The Book of Eli had simply stuck with the aforementioned premise—an entertaining if derivative version of Mad Max Goes West—it might have worked just fine. Instead, the film is hobbled by implausibility in concept and execution, a thick coating of a strange and bitter religious message, and a slower-than-a-shamble pacing that relies heavily on squinty eyes, brows raised at sounds no one can hear, and lots and lots of walking. Slowly. In silhouette. Without sound.

On a purely technical level, The Book of Eli is rather beautiful in its bleakness. The production design is convincing (ultimately the most convincing thing about Eli’s incredibly drab afterworld) and the cinematography is oddly rich, despite being stuffed to the choke-point with vast cloudy panoramas just one notch away from the monochromatic. And the pure charisma of actors like Washington and Oldman can’t be denied, especially when they’re combined with clever near-cameos by the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Michael Gambon (Dumbledore does Tombstone? Really?) and a surprisingly convincing Tom Waits, who provides the most enjoyable two minutes of the entire movie. There are professionals at work here; they know what they’re doing and you can’t keep yourself from watching them, no matter what.

Denzel Washington (Eli) walks... and walks... and walks... in a post-apocalyptic landscape. ©2010 Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved.

Still, underneath the almost balletic fight-scene choreography and Denzel’s thousand-yard stare, there’s a serious set of problems with The Book of Eli, beginning with the book itself. It’s giving away almost nothing at all to let you in the ‘secret’—that The Book in question is, indeed, The Book, the Good One, the King James Edition of the Holy Bible. The movie itself does everything but spray-paint the name of the book on the camera lens in the first twenty minutes, and confirms it with a round of somber-yet-still-embarrassing dialogue a few minutes later. It would be nice if there was a bit more mystery to it, but that’s not really the issue. The problem comes when we’re asked to believe that this is literally that only copy of the Bible to survive the holocaust; that all the others were destroyed in the disaster or by vengeful humans immediately

after they crawled out of their underground shelters.

What’s more, we’re expected to believe that even the idea of religion—the ancient meme of having a God or even Gods—has somehow been lost to the world in a few short years. Its best (or worst) illustration is embodied in one particularly embarrassing scene—one that evoked audible consensus groans from the crowd of critics at a recent screening—when Mila Kunis’ character tries to show her astonished mother the previously undreamt of, brand new idea of “saying grace” that Eli taught her the night before, implying that even the most basic notion of prayer seems to have been forgotten. Oldman’s bully-boy bossman has to tell her how to end this nameless ‘thing’ she’s learned from Eli. “Amen,” he grumbles. “The word you’re looking for is Amen.” As if even than fundamental idea, one absolutely essential and universal to virtually any society during its darkest times, has been burned out of the human mind.

Denzel Washington on the stunts in the making of The Book of Eli:

This isn’t just rickety world-building, done simply to prove a point or make a metaphor (though it’s that as well). This is also bad science, though in this case the science in question is anthropology rather than physics or biochemistry. Every society, at every level of development has its God or Gods; all of them have some sort of prayer or petitioning process, some means to communicate with their deities. To presuppose that Americans—or any human society, really—would lose the fundamental notion of God and Religion, and would do it in a single thirty-year span, is just too much to accept. It gives the movie an unrealistic and preachy quality that it never quite escapes.

It is this lack of anthropological gravitas that makes Eli’s post-apocalyptic world simply unbelievable. There is no color there, no music, no art, no education, and no love; sex itself is present only as prostitution or rape. Even simple hygiene and literacy have disappeared. There is still rubble blocking Main Street and the corpses of rusting cars still huddle at the curb—and this in the middle of the nameless town square thirty yeas after the Flash that ended it all. This isn’t a transplanted town of the Old West, despite the genre-specific similarities. This is civilization seen as an eternal refugee camp, filled with people who are more like Morlocks than humans, with all the filth and hopelessness that implies.

And then there’s the religious notion that empowers Eli’s quest—the idea that the Book, the book itself, not the messages it carries—has some magical, talismanic property. Without the presence, the magical power, of the King James Bible, the movie tells us, people have descended into post-literate barbarism; humans will begin to act human again only with the resurrection of the Bible itself, and even then, only if it’s returned to the ‘right’ hands; otherwise this magic book will become a weapon of mass destruction instead of salvation. The ideas that are memorialized in the Bible are barely acknowledged here, much less discussed, beyond the recitation of a few of its most painfully obvious verses and a misremembrance of the Golden Rule. But the book is of supreme importance, worth nearly endless bloodshed to move to its true destination, which is really nothing more than a return to the hands of a slightly less revolting but no less isolated elite.

What’s more, it’s worth noting that Denzel’s Eli is not, by any stretch, a Christian or a hero, not even one of those reluctant-hero types. He does not preach the Bible’s teachings—he can’t even bear to say the name of the book aloud until the last ten minutes of the movie, and you won’t hear the name of “Jesus” at all in Eli, not once. He does not behave like Jesus, either; quite the contrary, he ignores those in need when he encounters them on the road; he keeps even the very existence of the Word to himself, constantly denying he even has the book at all, and he evades or kills anyone who gets in his way as he continues his relentless vision quest. If there is an underlying message about religion in this film, the message is that religion is an amoral force, one that can be used for good or evil, without any intrinsic positive value at all. That, and the idea that humans, left to their own devices, are just No Damn Good; that given half a chance (and no magic Bibles to stop it), we will sink into grimy barbarism and self-destruction, up to and including cannibalism, in the space of a single generation.

Not exactly a message of hope.

The plot itself has some significant difficulties that really don’t matter in the long run, and the implicit geography of the post apocalyptic world is just plain wrong. Worst of all, the last fifteen minutes of the movie, in which the Book’s ultimate fate is revealed and all the twists begin to explode like land mines planted along the way, is almost laughably problematic. But there is a visual power in Eli, and throughout we are clearly in the hands of some very talented actors that can make us keep watching no matter what we might be thinking. Bottom line? You’ll get a better post-apocalyptic pop from The Road, Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Fallout 3 than you’ll get from The Book of Eli.

The Book of Eli goes into wide release in theatres on January 15, 2010.


Brad Munson is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, marketing coach, and advertising creative content developer. He is the author of The Mad Throne, Inside Men In Black II, and Rain. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the fantasy, sci-fi, horror website All About The

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One thought on “REVIEW: The Book of Eli (Bleak Chic with a Christian Twist)”

  1. Wow, I somehow “knew” it was going to be a bad film – from the painfully over-the-top quotes they chose to use with juxtapositional imagery (a grenade? Really? Perfect movie?) – but this just sounds like I had literally no idea what KIND of bad film it was going to be. So it’s Waterworld on land?

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