“The Book of Eli” is a film ruled by its religious conviction. So in the opinion of a secular critic such as myself, it’s hard not to consider elements of the film to be laughably ridiculous. Now in my defense, there are films about religion and/or faith that I’ve enjoyed immensely (example: Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ), but this is not one of them.
[Warning – SPOILERS] The film begins with a wanderer named Eli who walks on foot across a desolate post-nuclear America. Eli is played by Denzel Washington who looks a bit too heavy for someone who exercises all day long, has very little water to drink, and is forced to eat hairless cats for sustenance. After eating the kitty, he happens upon a group of hooligans who try to kill him for water and/or whatever else he may possess. Eli pulls out a large knife and quickly dispatches every bad guy, superhero style. Soon after, he wanders upon a derelict town where he attempts to get his battery recharged (literally, in order to power his iPod) and his water canteen refilled. The people of this lawless town are ruled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Oldman, an actor who in my opinion can almost do no wrong, creates the most interesting character in the movie; which, sadly, isn’t saying much because he isn’t given great material to work with. Carnegie is your standard bad guy who is in a quest to find what is supposedly the last copy of the Bible. He feels that quoting scripture is going to give him the power to have greater control over the people of the town and, in turn, territories beyond. I should point out that it is explained that in this post-apocalyptic world, all of the survivors banded together thirty years ago to burn every copy of the Bible because it is believed that the Bible was the cause of the nuclear annihilation in the first place. How all the survivors of the earth were able to communally decide to do this is beyond me. How did they contact each other to discuss this? And what about language barriers?
Anyway, as Eli is waiting for his water canteen to be filled he has an argument with another bad guy. This leads to another scene of SuperEli killing everyone with speed and dexterity. I think there are certain actors who just can’t do certain things. For me, I don’t think Denzel Washington plays a bad-ass very well. There’s something about his acting style, personality or whatever that just makes it hard for me to see him as believable. Now don’t get me wrong, I do think he’s a good actor in some movies, but not ones like this. I don’t think he ever should have won the Academy Award for “Training Day.” It should have gone to Ethan Hawke, who gave a much better performance in the same film in a role infinitely more complex. But I digress… Carnegie is pissed that Eli’s killed so many of his men, so he jails Eli when he won’t agree to work for Carnegie. Later that night Carnegie sends the young Solara to have sex with Eli in order to convince him to join up. Solara is played by Mila Kunis, whose eyebrows are a bit too plucked and shaped for someone in this post-apocalyptic hell. Solara discovers that Eli has the mystical last copy of the Bible with him and he teaches her how to pray. She does this without question, even though her character really would have no idea what the heck he’s talking about.
The next day Eli escapes. It is not explained how he escapes, so let’s just consider this Miracle #1. Eli is going west, you see, because he has a feeling that is where he needs to bring the Bible. Solara chases after him and Eli reluctantly agrees to let her join. Carnegie and his men join the chase as well; yet they seem to have a hard time catching up even though they are driving vehicles. Eventually Eli and Solara happen upon a still-intact house out in the middle of nowhere. They go to investigate and find an older couple (“Harry Potter” alumni Michael Gambon & Frances de la Tour) living there. After realizing that the older couple are cannibals, Eli and Solara attempt to leave. Their escape is cut short as Carnegie and his men suddenly arrive. A massive gun battle ensues, killing many of the bad guys, as well as the older couple. Eventually Eli is trapped and once he surrenders his Bible Carnegie shoots him in the stomach. Carnegie and the men take the Bible and Solara and head back to town. Through outrageous circumstances Solara escapes with a vehicle. She arrives back at the house to find Eli is missing. She finds him walking west. Apparently, he is not dead. We’ll call that Miracle #2.
Back in town Carnegie finally opens the Bible, which had been locked like a child’s diary, to discover that it is written in Braille. (Apparently Eli reads Braille? And, considering how thick the Braille pages are, how can the small book be the entire King James Bible?) Meanwhile, Solara and Eli continue west. (Yes, he’s still alive.) Eventually they reach San Francisco. Somehow Eli knows that they need to go to Alcatraz Island. They get in a boat and Solara lets Eli row…even though he has a bullet in his stomach. On the island is a group of seemingly more civilized people who have a printing press and want to make copies of the Bible. Since he no longer has his copy, Eli recites the entire Bible to them. Yes, you read that correctly, he dictates the entire contents of the Bible to them, word for word. While he does this, they apparently decide he’d look better with a shave because they remove all the hair from his head and scalp and put him in a nice robe. One might assume they’ve done something about the bullet in his stomach, but it’s not clarified. Anyway, once he finishes his recitation he dies. They invite Solara to stay on their civilized island, but she grabs Eli’s big knife and decides she’s going to go out and be a warrior for God.
There are a couple of things this movie is trying to say: 1. A world without the Bible (ergo, without God) is a lawless, despicable hellhole. After all, the people of the world have had 30 years since the abolition of the Bible to become civilized and they have not. 2. Only the Bible (God) will bring peace to the world. (Ironically, the Alcatrazians were civilized and peaceful before Eli arrived, which disproves the movie’s own theories.) Now, I ask, how different is the filmmaker’s role from the proselytizing Carnegie planned on doing? And how are we to correlate the extreme violence in the film with its message of peace (particularly, Solara’s ultimate decision to kick-ass for God)? This film is propaganda at its worst.