Movie Review: The Book of Eli
By Matthew Huntley
January 21, 2010
I'd be curious to know The Hughes Brothers' motivation behind making The Book of Eli. Were they drawn toward the visual opportunities of the picture - the dusty landscapes; the bleak, post-apocalyptic imagery; the gritty hand-to-hand combat - or were they more intrigued by the religious connotations? This is a decent movie, but it could have been better had it a clearer sense of what it really wanted to be about. There's a tug of war between the action and the story, and because both vie for screen time, neither fully delivers, which means we leave the movie wanting.
Next to vampires, dystopias are a hot commodity in Hollywood. Last year alone brought us three different movies about the apocalypse (Terminator Salvation, 2012, The Road; did I miss one?). Eli joins the club but is rather vague about its exact time and place. All we know, and all we need to know, is a war took place and civilization all but collapsed. Now the world is a barren wasteland, with a penetrating sun, harsh windstorms and rotting corpses. Water and fuel are scarce and humans have devolved into a mostly illiterate race. Most of them have only their primitive instincts to guide them.
Out of this ashen world walks Eli (Denzel Washington), a lone wanderer and skilled martial artist whose only prerogative is to head west. The reason for this, I will not reveal, but Eli carries with him the last remaining Bible, and that's viewed as the ultimate source of power by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a megalomaniac who seeks to build new towns and reign over the masses. He routinely sends henchmen out to find the beloved book because, to him, the Bible contains inimitable words that can sway and control people. When Eli comes to town, Carnegie witnesses his capabilities and orders Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce him. She discovers Eli has the book and gives away his secret when she prays with her blind mother (Jennifer Beals). When Carnegie hears this, it's a battle for the book.
It's obvious the lack of God in this world symbolizes hell (hell is essentially the absence of God), but does the movie view Christianity as the key to salvation? Probably, but it's afraid to admit it. Eli certainly prays to God and carries a Christian Bible, but the word Christianity is never spoken. He tells Solara he's a prophet asked by God to deliver a message, but in the end, that message is more about preservation than following a specific religion. In this movie, the Bible and its sacred power are viewed as a general answer to the crumbling world; they don't necessarily encourage Jesus' teachings.
Deep down, I think Gary Whitta's screenplay wants to promote Christianity but remains less explicit out of fear it might alienate some viewers. By keeping a certain distance, and by intermittently resorting to routine action and violence, it's able to say a little whilst playing it safe. But I see this as a lack of courage to say what's really on its mind. It's afraid to preach and make a full-fledged argument because it's not willing to go the distance.
A missed opportunity is with the Gary Oldman character, whose role is limited to a one-dimensional villain. Instead of simply being power-hungry, why not make Carnegie a more complicated man who believes in the teachings of the Bible but ultimately exploits them for control? It would have been a lot more interesting to see him as a hypocrite who misinterprets the source he so desperately desires. And while Kunis is a pretty face, I'm not convinced she was the right actress to play Solara. To her credit, she doesn't play ignorant and naïve well enough, and that's something her role calls for.
There are some good things to mention about The Book of Eli, including Denzel Washington's solemn performance and the pacing (the Hughes Brothers give it their usual calm yet forceful energy). Both of these make the movie entertaining, but it needed to make up its mind about its own agenda. The action and the story use each other and both suffer. You either spend more time on the story or action, or both. The movie has a lot of ideas - both visually and narrative-wise - but it doesn't go deep enough with them so we feel like we're taking something away from it.