You would think that everything filmmakers needed to say about the impending apocalypse had already been said. Surely this is one tired genre that is ready to be set adrift on an ice floe (although if these end-of-days films are right, we may have to think of a more arid-appropriate way of getting rid of our elderly invalids). That’s not to say there haven’t been some great post-apocalyptic dramas in the past couple of years; WALL-E, I Am Legend and Children of Men come to mind immediately. And while the themes of this genre remain as relevant – if not more relevant – than ever, too many films simply attempt to outdo the despair of their predecessor, presenting an even more ravaged landscape than the last. And frankly, it’s getting depressing.
I sat down to The Book of Eli expecting a lecture, and was instead treated to a rollicking action film that evoked the manic ultra-violence of Mad Max rather than the sensitive study of humanity of The Road. Sure, it’s important to have films like The Road that try and define the indelible qualities that make us human and argue why we must protect them at all costs. But it’s essential that films also entertain us, and The Book of Eli certainly achieves that much. And every so often, amidst the stylish direction of Allen and Albert Hughes, touching moments emerge regarding the need for faith – religious or otherwise – during times of hardship. The film also briefly ponders the role of religion in war. Sure, it’s hardly a thought-provoking polemic. But for a movie in which Denzel Washington displays a flair for decapitation that would make Hit Girl blush, it’s more thoughtful than you would expect.
The film takes place thirty years after some sort of religious war, in which the majority of the population was either killed, blinded or turned into a cannibal. Blindness has never seemed so appealing. Eli (Denzel Washington) has spent the past three decades travelling the devastated landscape; walking towards ‘the west’ or rather, the coast – maybe to meet Viggo and his son? In his possession is what might be the most valuable thing on the planet – the very last bible. He understands the transformative power of the Lord’s word, as well as the potential danger that comes with it. Eli wants to use the book to restore faith in a desolate world, and will kill anyone that stands in his way. Makeshift-mayor Carnegie (Gary Oldman) has other plans for the book. He’s established a shanty town for non-flesh-eating survivors, and as well as controlling the water supply, is eager to instill the fear of God into his people.
From the very first frame, The Book of Eli captures your attention. The Hughes Brothers seem to have story-boarded the film like an intricately animated graphic novel – no surprise that their last movie was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic From Hell. It’s a gorgeous looking film; impressive considering it shares the same basic abandoned-cars-in-the-middle-of-the-road look of every other post-apocalyptic pic. The style, execution and subversion of the genre scream “comic book adaptation”. Fittingly, the film’s screenwriter Gary Whitta cut his teeth writing for the comic medium, The Book of Eli being his first screenplay. The film’s first half feels more like a tribute to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns than a traditional end-of-days drama. You have the mysterious man with no name (if it weren’t for the title, we wouldn’t know Eli’s) strolling into the town, trying to avoid trouble and eventually raising the ire of local the bully. Could Eli be christened after the legendary Eli Wallach? Probably not, but it’s fun to assume nonetheless.
The tone shifts during the film’s second half, in which Eli escapes from Carnegie’s clutches with his plucky stepdaughter (Mila Kunis) in tow. The picture morphs into a chase movie; not exactly an unwelcome transition when it provides at least three excellently executed action sequences. However, the film is more fun when it’s playing with genre conventions than when it succumbs to them. It also doesn’t help that Washington and Kunis – although likable as always – are woefully miscast. Denzel is about as believable a Christian ninja as I am a believable Denzel. Kunis, who can electrify any comedy, just seems out of place here. Thankfully, Oldman adds another memorable villain to his mantelpiece here with his determined, somewhat exasperated faux-evangelist.
The film is really only betrayed by its ending – a last-minute revelation that is poignant at first, but becomes more and more inexplicable the longer I think about it. A shame really. The Book of Eli, whilst hardly subversive, is more thoughtful than your average actioner and more thrilling than your average meditation. In this post-Revenge of the Fallen age of action cinema (itself an apocalyptic wasteland), The Book of Eli gives us more than we probably deserve.