From the comfortable distance of our armchairs, ever-so-slightly askew, one might presume to know the tale of The Book of Eli – another installment in the post-apocalypse, nuclear holocaust stricken world of the future where cannibalism, murder, and mayhem live in disharmonious proximity. Yet there is something different about Denzel Washington as the lone wayfarer who defies the elements and would-be marauders on a thirty year march through the desert and the dead that makes me want to like this movie. It’s refreshing to some degree to find Washington in a role we haven’t seen him in before, not to mention the combined talents of the Hughes brothers at the helm. As you’ll recall, this dynamic duo brought us films like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and From Hell with Johnny Depp and Ian Holm. By-the-way, Ian Holm simply cannot be beat in Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter which for me is one of the quintessential character movies of the past twenty-five years. So to find the Hughes brothers directing another death and devastation movie meant we might at least be privy to a different take on an all too familiar genre. Don’t get me wrong, a future hero on a holy mission roaming the devastated remains of familiar landmarks isn’t entirely unappealing – though similarities to The Road, 28 Days Later, etc., might leave you feeling full before the main course arrives. What you’ll find new here are moments of genuinely beautiful cinematography – especially in the opening scenes. But not all is well in the land of Eli, for every step forward the film seems to lose momentum and pause as if weighted down by too much sun and desert, and in so doing stumbles more and more as the plot plods along. Specific story elements not withstanding, The Book of Eli is simply the hero’s journey with a twist – the only real question is whether or not the twist is worth the 118 minutes of your time.
It is wonderful to see Denzel Washington as Eli, his prowess and consummate reserve both practical and believable, but after the first thirty minutes I kept losing interest with every cliché encounter; from motorcycle marauders akin to The Road Warrior to old homesteaders locked up in a house that doesn’t look like it could survive the night, let alone a nuclear holocaust or whatever it was that turned the earth black and the people into wild dogs. But at least the curmudgeon couple live long enough to share a secret stash of guns, bombs, and RPGS from their sofa.
What sticks with me the most is the opening scene of the film where Eli lies in wait for a long needed meal, his body lost in inky shadows, trees scratched black from a hauntingly beautiful blue sky. We don’t know if it is day or night but when Eli strikes his prey we’re shocked into the reality of the story where there are hunters and the hunted. Shortly thereafter Eli has a chance encounter with a band of hijackers that results in one of the more successful, and original fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Yet similarities to other films keep The Book of Eli from taking the kind of center stage more aptly given to other genre films like District 9, for example.
Some have been critical of the biblical references used throughout, references to the Holy book as the only source for rebuilding a devastated world. I for one wasn’t bothered by the use of religion as a plot device but rather felt the ‘ah-ha’ moments ala M. Night Shyamalan are clunky and unrefined. I’m reminded of a recent viewing of Scorsese’s Shutter Island and his use of the ‘surprise’ ending. Not such a surprise for those of us who are awake or not distracted by another tub full of hot buttered popcorn. I can think of only one film where the surprise ending was the most successful and that is M. Night’s Sixth Sense way back in 1999. Since then he has built a career on the use of surprise endings and sadly, others have followed. What is most purposeful for the sake of criticism here are the use of unanswered questions posed and not preached; such as how does this guy kick butt against insurmountable odds? How does one walk for thirty years across such an inhospitable desert? But the sense of wonderment is short-lived as tired stereotypes and foreseeable plot points amass. By the time we figure out what, where and why, I’m not entirely certain I care. Sparse and relentless sepia tones and high contrast cinematography begin to tire like stage makeup under hot lights. By the time we make any headway into the story it’s too late. Sure, the stumblings along the journey of the film don’t necessarily convey all that The Book of Eli has to offer but you’ll find obvious reasons to complain when plot detours story, concept muddies character and compared to films like 28 Days Later and The Road – which I have already mentioned and reviewed here – the resulting movie leaves one feeling a bit disappointed.
This is not to say that The Book of Eli is not worthy of viewing. On the contrary, flawed and at times distractingly so, Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman salvage what might otherwise relegate the film to a slot on the shelf of movies like other movies you haven’t seen or finished. And while I am uncomfortably reminded of the Kevin Costner film, The Postman – which failed because it tried to teach the audience something about the future without taking into consideration the social and political climate of the late 1990’s – I think the Book of Eli’s modest success is an example of an O.K. film benefiting by the time in which it is made. It doesn’t hurt that Denzel Washington can make a slow movie better, just look at his previous work the needless remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) or the sleeper Man on Fire (2004) both turning a profit but removing Washington from the film would surely have lessened any hope of a return on investment. While the Hughes brothers are clear that beneath the veneer of their wasteland beats the heart of a story, they are also in tune with a scenario that touches on today’s environmental concerns and fear of weapons of mass destruction that might easily make the world of this story a reality. Every film about the future is first and foremost about the present and in this way The Book of Eli succeeds where others have failed.