In 2009, there were two (post)apocalyptic films…that I am aware of, The Road and 2012. Both took drastically different approaches to an age old theme, though neither of them were particularly fresh approaches. 2010 starts off with its own post-apocalyptic film in The Book of Eli. There’s much here that is similar to its predecessors, but it does provide a new character…the bible.
The world of The Book of Eli is still reeling decades after a nuclear holocaust. We follow one man, Eli (Denzel Washington), if this is indeed his real name, as he walks west. Along the way, he encounters roving gangs of cannibals and other sorts of barbarians, some of whom work for Carnegie (Gary Oldman), if this too is his real name, the leader of a “developing” town that looks to be in what was once either Nevada or New Mexico. He is a voracious reader, but is on the hunt for one particular book, the bible. We later learn that all bibles were destroyed because it was believed that they caused the war. However, a voice spoke to Eli and lead him to the last remaining bible which he is now transporting west to safety against overwhelming odds, but with a little help, especially in Solara (Mila Kunis).
The Hughes Brothers’ (Albert and Allen) vision of a post-apocalyptic world is nothing particularly revolutionary. Everything is grayed out and ashen. Survivors utilize even the smallest pieces of trash to get by (they bathe with KFC moist towelettes). Water is in short supply, and sources of it become the birthplace of new towns. The Hughes Brothers are, however, adept at crafting some fine fight scenes, particularly the first encounter between Eli and a group of cannibals. Unfortunately, action, like water, is in short supply.
Interestingly, the bible is a central character in this film. Carnegie desires it because it can give him the words with which to lead the people. Why he just doesn’t fabricate one and make it all up, given his influence and armory, I’ll never know. Eli, however, sees the bible’s true worth, although he never really tells us why he’s willing to sacrifice his life for it. One gets the sense that the bible will be the sole foundation of the new civilization, until we see its final resting place.
The Book of Eli hasn’t received stellar reviews; however, it’s not as bad as some critics make it out to be. Unfortunately, Owen Gleiberman critiques the prevalence of apocalyptic films more than the film itself. He writes, to the effect, “like we need another one.” Well, like we need another romantic comedy or another Fast and Furious. The fact that we have so many apocalyptic films is telling in and of itself. What are the fears or visions motivating the production of these films? What are the common visual and thematic threads through them? What are the implicit warnings that we would do well to heed?
The Book of Eli (118 mins) is rated R for brutal violence and language and is in theaters everywhere.