Before I even dig into the Book of Eli, it’s worth noting the bizarre spectacle that’s been playing out all week over at Rotten Tomatoes. I found it utterly fascinating, how some of the early pundits were reacting to the film, and the difference between the opinions I saw flowing online Wednesday, versus those that went live Thursday.
The vast majority of early bloggers seemed to be salivating at the chance to tear down a heavy-handed January religious thriller. But as the more seasoned critics starting posting their reviews Thursday, there was a little more praise paid to the film’s atmosphere, visuals and imagination. Still, even among those “fresh” reviews, there seemed to be two points of criticism that kept popping up: The twist ending is silly, and if you look beyond Eli’s book, the whole thing is pretty derivative.
Did we see the same film here? I couldn’t disagree more.
For starters, how can you look beyond Eli’s book – you know, the book that forms the film’s title? That’s the cornerstone of the plot; the book IS the movie. It’s the catalyzing force that spins every scene on its axis, and the wild card that allows the Hughes Bros. to pepper the film with literary and intellectual commentary that wouldn’t make sense otherwise
(Read our full interview with the Hughes Bros.: Using the Bible as MacGuffin)
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. I like this movie. I think it’s fun, inventive, smart and more than a little subversive. I don’t go into movies with my arms crossed and forehead burrowed, ready to condemn; I go in eager and ready to see what the filmmaker has rolled up his sleeves. And when it came to The Book of Eli, the twists and turns stuck with me. This is a story that defies easy categorization. There’s a Bible in this movie, yes, but that doesn’t mean the film is a fundamentalist tale. There’s a twist-ending but that doesn’t mean it’s some sort of M. Night Shyamalan cop-out. Denzel Washington plays a rogue post-apocalyptic wanderer, but that doesn’t mean he’s doing some derivative impression of Will Smith in I Am Legend. The knee-jerk Eli reactions, calling out its religious subtext or familiar subject matter, seem remarkably superficial. It’s like saying There Will Be Blood is about the oil industry because there’s an oilfield in it.
What sets a film apart, after all, is not what it’s about, but how it goes about it. So let’s take a step back for a second and actually consider the sophisticated way in which The Book of Eli goes about molding its specific vision of the apocalypse:
Apocalyptic landscape: Yep, there have been apocalypse films before. But I’m used to darker, grittier color schemes with more ruins and familiar landmarks. Eli uses the lens of the dust bowl. The horizons are vast and desolate, almost always brown or yellow, and Eli – wearing masks and sunglasses as he trudges through the flying sand – has been wandering west for 30 years. Now I admit: it doesn’t seem like it should take him 30 years to reach the ocean, but then again sometimes he appears to be walking in the wrong direction. He goes on “faith,” he says, and we can’t help but conjure images of Moses, keeping the faith alive for 40 years in the desert. There’s a whole lot of talk about religion in this movie, but I think this is the most powerful demonstration of faith: Eli keeps going. Month after month, year after year.
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The New Society: Eli comes upon a rural outpost, all under the rule of Carnegie (Gary Oldman). While we’ve seen towns like this before in bleak futuristic sagas, Book of Eli has a twist that I found rather shrewd. Carnegie rules with an iron fist, issuing citizens water rations as a way of controlling the populace. Seeing the way he uses something as simple as a well as his conduit to power is kinda cool.
Meanwhile, he and his henchman live the good life, with a team of prostitutes serving their every need. When Carnegie wants to buy someone off, he gives them a free session with one of his girls. And what is he sending his henchman out to do, each and every day? Steal books – in search of the one all-powerful book that Eli just so happens to be carrying.
Carnegie’s obsession serves not only as a commentary on how religion can be perverted and weaponized when placed in the wrong hands, but the raids executed by his men offer up a sobering message about the value of books, literature and the printed word. There’s one scene where the futuristic hoodlums bring back a stash of modern-day books and magazines, and Carnegie scoffs at the trashy titles they’ve gathered. It’s a powerful slap in the face, about the shallowness of the media we’re consuming today, and the importance of preserving our very best works for future generations.