I’m uncertain whether it’s a penchant for witnessing humanity’s worst in action or seeing a portrait of our lot at its best but I’ve always had a soft spot for post-apocalyptic films. Watching the society I rely upon for my sustenance crumbled always makes for a good tale and over and over again I keep revisiting old post-apocalyptic films and searching out for new ones. Today I watched The Hughes Brothers film The Book of Eli – a post-apocalyptic film about the Bible. Although I didn’t think The Book of Eli was excellent I did enjoy it and felt the commentary about religion was powerful. After the 2009 release of The Road, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer Prize winning novel, it’s difficult to look at the genre without a sharp dose of criticism for anything that doesn’t compare. Unfortunately, The Book of Eli doesn’t come close to The Road but it’s still a decent piece of film and isn’t without merit.
The Book of Eli follows Eli (Denzel Washington), a lone walker carrying a King James Bible out west. Apparently God told him to (or something like that). Along the way he enters a small town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a ruthless older man also on the lookout for a Bible. Where Eli believes the Bible can give hope and give righteous instruction to people Carnegie realizes the power the book holds and wants it to fulfill his expansionist agenda. Eventually Eli meets Solara (Mila Kunis), a prostitute he befriends and the two trek out away from Carnegie and towards Eli’s original destination.
It’s common for post-apocalyptic works to lean towards science fiction, predicting a futuristic society by building on the contemporary. The Book of Eli does lean towards science fiction but (at least in a Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov fashion) unlike both before mentioned authors the world the characters inhabit isn’t the primary character. The Road also focuses heavily on the characters but their environment is always in the foreground, shaping their decision, their outlook, and ultimately who they are. I didn’t feel the surroundings in The Book of Eli were shaping the characters; in fact, I felt it was the other way around in some instances. Of course Carnegie, Eli, Solara, and the others were the result of their milieu but it felt more like the Old West than a futuristic dystopia. The saloon in Carnegie’s town seemed like something out of Back to the Future III (without the comedy) and the social order in the tiny hamlet was like something out of Deadwood. In short, it didn’t feel like a real regression like McCarthy described or the one depicted in the Mad Max films.
For starters Carnegie’s people had more than the protagonists in The Road or most other similar films. Naturally they went without a great deal but they weren’t starving, they weren’t without water, and they were relatively entertained. While Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book series is about zombies and The Book of Eli isn’t I feel Kirkman’s characters are a more accurate display of what happens to people who society breaks down and we’re left to our own devices, starving and surviving like animals. The Book of Eli does have people who are destitute and depraved – resorting to cannibalism, killing, and raping – but they were in the minority. The food situation wasn’t explored deeply but the men and women in Carnegie’s care didn’t look famished; just because you put a little soot on the actors doesn’t mean they exude desperation. Maybe it’s because in The Road Viggo Mortensen and company looked so haggard and the bar’s been set quite high after that film’s introduction into the post-apocalyptic canon.
The best part of The Book of Eli is the Hughes Brothers’ commentary on Christianity. While I’m not a religious person I do understand the power of religion and believe The Bible is a very important book – the archetype of Western literature for the last two millennia and into the future. The film posits religion can be used for either good or evil; this theme is a common one in contemporary society. In a civilization where people both feed the homeless in God’s name and also kill under the same banner The Book of Eli’s central theme is a potent statement. By the film’s conclusion (which, by the way, is a great twist and one of the better moments in the film) it becomes evident The Bible has a significant place in Western civilization, regardless of whether people like it or not. It defines who we are as a people and defines the foundation of our world. Like Homer’s tales were cultural glue for the ancient Greeks, the Bible and Christianity comprise a large portion of our heritage. However, if those morals are placed into the wrong hands and spun incorrectly The Bible can do more harm than good – just look at all the countless dead via Christians.
Unlike The Road (and other films and literature of the same genre), the characters in The Book of Eli are mostly one dimensional. Aside from Ray Stevenson’s part as Carnegie’s right hand man the protagonists and antagonists don’t show any depth and are either good or evil. Eli is a murdering ass kicker (killing people in a very martial arts film fashion with guns, swords, arrows, and other utensils) but, like the Old Testament God, he is killing righteously and he doesn’t really show much remorse for his actions: he’s a man on a mission from God (like the Blues Brothers). Any of the film’s twists don’t come from the characters themselves but from the story and, aside from the predictable outcomes for some, I didn’t find myself really invested in anybody. Naturally, Carnegie’s painted as evil from the outset and seeing him get his comeuppance is slightly rewarding but other than that I didn’t feel any sympathy for anybody. It’s a good thing the film’s central idea was strong otherwise The Book of Eli would’ve made for two extremely boring and uninspired hours.
Here is the trailer.