A January release usually doesn’t bode well for any film. The month is so far away from award season that barely anyone can remember what they liked about a film – if they liked anything at all. Also, audience turnout is typically lower in January, because the masses are still recovering from the holidays. These two realities didn’t bode well for The Book of Eli, but the film also had a few things going for it as well. Namely, it had two film industry heavyweights, competent directors and an engaging story and universe. Tragically, the elements just don’t come together, succeeding only in perpetuating the January stereotype.
In the future, civilization has been obliterated by warfare. Survivors exist in small, rough towns or as road bandits, waylaying hapless travelers. One such traveler is Eli (Denzel Washington), who is the ultimate survivalist and is extremely handy with a blade. He believes he is on a holy mission to deliver the last Bible in existence to some unknown group in the west. Unfortunately for Eli, a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who controls a small town with an iron fist, wants the Bible for himself – believing that people will obey him if he reads the words from the book. Now Eli – with the help of Carnegie’s rebellious stepdaughter, Solara (Mila Kunis) – must elude Carnegie and his thugs and somehow survive the wasteland to complete his mission.
Religious viewers will no doubt equate Eli to the Prophet Elijah who appears in many different faiths. Elijah is prophesized to return “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord,” thus Eli appears after a global war has annihilated much of humanity. Atheists and secularists may not enjoy The Book of Eli because of its heavy religious theme; however, general audiences will take issue because the film focuses on preaching first and telling a believable story second.
It’s always a shame when characters don’t behave in the way one would expect the average person to given the situation. When an important character is mortally wounded only to be found walking along the road later, no one questions this. It’s also unbelievable that people would start actively burning Bibles after the war, making Eli’s Bible the last one. One would think that survivors of a holocaust would have better things to do than try to make a political statement. Furthermore, Carnegie’s motivation is also suspect. He wants the Bible because of its ability to attract followers, yet he seems to be doing just fine using a water source as leverage. Why even bother with the Bible that puts someone or something else above him as the ultimate dealer of life and death? In the end, The Book of Eli feels more like a simplistic, post apocalyptic parable – with single-dimension characters who have no arc – rather than a satisfying film.
The acting is adequate throughout, but not dazzling. Denzel Washington, for all his many talents, seems to play himself here. He’s a badass when he needs to be and sympathetic and endearing most other times. Washington plays Eli competently, but audiences will feel like they’ve seen this performance before. Gary Oldman does a fantastic job of crafting a nuanced character and he’s enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, he’s not quite as ruthless as he needs to be; his idea of torturing people is to simply grab them by the hair. Mila Kunis, unfortunately, is just a token pretty face to add some eye-candy to the joyless landscape. Her transformation into Ray Ban-wearing wasteland warrior may incite a few titters among viewers.
One of the film’s strongest points is its visuals. The Book of Eli looks amazing and is utterly convincing as a post apocalyptic United States. The environment is mostly barren, punctuated by crumbling infrastructure. The color is desaturated, giving the landscape a proper bleached look and feel. Finally, the costume design and makeup effects completely sell the wastelander look with the latest in survivalist couture.
The direction is hit and miss. Individual scenes are visually compelling, but also feel inert, starting with the beginning of the film. A little too much time is invested just to watch Eli kill and eat a cat. The action sequences, however, are done very well. One inspired fight scene is done in silhouette beneath the shadow of an overpass. Another fight scene features brutal, decapitations while the climactic action sequence is captured in long takes with the camera impossibly, yet seamlessly moving around the set.
Finally, the twist revealed at the end of the film is also hard to believe and is a perfect example of dealing unfairly with viewers. Unfortunately, the twist is critical to the story, which makes it particularly treacherous. In the end, however, since The Book of Eli is faith-based, all of the inconsistencies can simply be explained away as being the power of God allowing these improbabilities to happen. While that explanation “works” it certainly isn’t satisfying – and audiences will definitely feel that way when they leave the theater.
On the upside, I predict the sale of designer sunglasses to skyrocket.