Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Directed by: The Hughes Brothers
Running time: 118 minutes
Eli (Denzel Washington) walks alone in a post-apocalyptic America, carrying the last copy of a book that could become the wellspring of a revived society. Or in the wrong hands, the hammer of a despot. Eli keeps his blade sharp and survival instincts sharper, navigating a savage wasteland and coming into conflict with a menacing warlord (Gary Oldman). The Hugest Brothers (Menace II Society) direct.
[Alert: Spoilers below]
No two ways about this. The Book of Eli is a gorgeous, lyrical look into a dystopian, bombed-to-hell future; a future where even sunlight can be dangerous, and people generally aren’t worth the clothes they wear. Through this derelict landscape walks Eli, a lone messianic badass with a razor-sharp machete and a zealous gleam in his eye. Eli’s on a mission to bring the world’s very last Bible west, where he knows it will be safe. Along the way, Eli makes friends with a wasteland ingénue named after a Toyota, and enemies with a man named Carnegie, who is a sort of Al Swearingen type with an appreciation for books and his finger firmly on the pulse of the ramshackle town around his saloon. See, Carnegie wants Eli’s Book badly enough to kill for it, and Eli’s honour-bound to keep that Book safe, even if it means killing for it. As can be expected, the meeting of unstoppable force with immovable object whips up a frenzy of acrobatic good-versus-evil bloodletting like only Hollywood can do it.
Clearly, Eli is meant to be a figure of light, a warrior monk set on spreading salvation, but in his zealous crusade to bring his Bible to some ill-defined spot out west he will duck into the shadows to wait out a nearby murder rather than endanger his Book by helping a stranger. Throughout, Eli is a hard-ass who lets nobody in — = at least until the edgy, but vulnerable, Solara gets under his carapace and sets up shop in his heart. Or something. At one point Eli tells Solara that what he’s learnt from the Book is that he’s here to help (to go way beyond mere paraphrasing), but this personal growth looks like it actually comes from his discovery of Solara screaming under the heaving form of a killing-field rapist. Even then, why does Eli stop to help Solara when he’s left possibly countless others to die? Simple: He’s met her before. Carnegie, on the other hand, is really bad news, but he still shows moments of tenderness and a bonafide desire to set up his town as a centre of civilization — even if in this case “civilization” will likely echo that of Mussolini’s Italy, rather than that of any place you’d want to live.
But if you were to distil out The Book of Eli’s essential core, the centre around which the conceptual gestalt revolves, it’s kind of unclear just what shape that core would take. The film’s overt religious overtones seem to make it a niche product, but what niche would have it? Bible thumpers would have a rough time loving Eli, the pacifist who only reluctantly fights, but who’ll readily slip his machete into the guts of an opponent who’s already down for the count. On the other hand, action-movie lovers might have trouble getting into some of The film’s more cerebral qualities.
Unfortunately, The Book of Eli is frustrating on several levels. The front half of the movie uses beautiful visuals and sparse human interaction (one stunningly stylized fight scene aside) to lay down a rich layer of mystery. Then, instead of growing that into the towering, existential epic this film could have been, the story instead dives into ham-handed symbolism and concepts that are so far gone, they ain’t never coming back. And the aforementioned mysterious overall character splinters into a series of unanswered questions. Nowhere are we told of how an everyman like Eli can pick up after a world-busting war and teach hisownself how to become a post-civ superhero. Nor are we given any sort of plausible explanation as to why every other Bible got burnt. Or rather, there’s an explanation, but it’s jarringly piss-poor. This is a motif that runs through many of the film’s central themes, and it’s kind of a drag. Leaving some things to the audience’s own brain power is a rare and beautiful thing in American cinema, but the line between that and a general lack of character exploration isn’t really all that fine; leaving so much of the film’s central character unfilled-in just shows a lack of focus.
The one central theme that emerges from this movie unscathed pertains to the power of faith. Eli’s carrying a King James Bible across a continent because a disembodied voice told him to. Okay, so the film reads like a postmodern bible story, but whether Eli heard an agent of Yahweh, or he’s come unglued by the trauma of holocaust, is never brought to light. And after a first cursory glance it becomes clear that this film is less a Christian allegory than it is an exploration of the power of faith, period. In this, the movie is successful, as it neatly frames the only real growth that Eli really undergoes.
Crave Factor – 7
Visually, this is a beautiful piece of cinema. Eli marches across epic landscapes that not only reveal the dirty, smoking ruin of a blasted civilization, but also help set that world up as a silent character — a trait which incidentally shows up most often in Canadian films, especially those by auteurs like Atom Egoyan and Claude Jutra. Even when the focus comes down to ground level, the cinematography and directing are superlative: fights are finely choreographed, and every shot is framed with an artist’s eye. Over all, a glowering sky hangs heavy, smothering the people who scratch out their existences below.
This is a level of cinematographic excellence that simply demands the Blu-ray treatment, though that doesn’t mean you’re going to get lifelike skin tones and a lush colour space. This film is all about a washed-out, quasi-70s film-stock look, with exaggerated contrast and a gritty texture to match. The sharp detailing and art-house cinematography make this film well worth the Blu-ray entrance fee.
Crave Factor – 9
The sound design is extremely well done, with directional sounds (like whizzing bullets) placed where they should be, and a generally well-designed soundscape. Gunfire is loud, but not overpowering; the dialogue bounces between tender whispers, simple conversation and yelling, but always sits well in the mix. Everything sounds crisp and clear.
Crave Factor – 9
Surprisingly, there is no commentary track. What there is instead is WB Maximum Movie Mode, which lets you watch the film with a sort of picture-in-picture mix of interviews, storyboards and such to give you an inside look at what went into a given scene. There are also 10 “Focus Point” featurettes that cover some of the same ground.
A Lost Tale is a short animated comic that brings Carnegie’s early history to light. It’s well done, though surely more interesting to those who like motion comics. There are also a few deleted scenes, but they don’t really add much to the overall package.
The Behind the Scenes feature is actually two well-done featurettes. Starting Over is an examination of how the rebuilding of society would work after a civilization-ending catastrophe. Eli’s Journey is a making-of piece that traces the film’s development.
Where the extra features in so many Blu-rays have a crappy, tacked-on character, the features on the Eli Blu-ray are designed to mesh well with one another and the overall film. Except the last feature: The Book of Eli Soundtrack is a short interview with composer Atticus Ross and co-director Allen Hughes, who discuss the finer points of creating the film’s impressive soundtrack. It’s an informative, if poorly-made scrap of footage, replete with indistinct sound and a home-movie feel. It should probably just have been left off the disc.
Crave Factor – 7
Menus and Packaging
The Book of Eli comes in a typical Warner combo-pack, which includes the Blu-ray, plus a DVD disc and digital copy. These combo packs are an ingenious way for anyone who’s not yet made the Blu-ray jump to feel free to buy with a home theatre upgrade in mind.
The package design is tasteful, as are the menus, which are dynamic, but not flashy. Navigating both pop-up and top menus is intuitive.
Crave Factor – 9
Conclusions & Final Thoughts
Is this film good? Yes. Or rather, the first part is. And though we’re not talking about From Dusk ’Till Dawn-level movie schizophrenia, the fact is that the film takes a pronounced dive in the final acts that is hard to stomach. One is also left with the feeling that everyone involved in creating this movie is way too interested in comic books for their own good.
That being said, even in its worst moments, The Book of Eli is a fun ride, and the casting is excellent. Even the fact that Mila Kunis is so obviously outclassed by the other actors works well in the context: Her character is similarly out of her league in the story. At the end of the day, this movie will appeal to anyone who loves Fallout games, Mad Max and the post-apocalyptic genre in general. In a twisted way, anyone who loved HBO’s Deadwood will likewise find something to like here. Finally, The Book of Eli will appeal to anyone who likes well-done action movies, even if it requires one to switch the grey matter on at first, then back off again as things progress.