Saturday, February 2, 2013

Post-Apocalyptic Christian Theater: The Book Of Eli Is Dark And Troublingly Familiar.

The Good: Themes, Acting, Setting
The Bad: Plot structure is very familiar, Brutal mood
The Basics: Following an apocalypse, a man protects the last known bible in The Book Of Eli.

As I looked through my library of reviews, I was actually shocked to realize how very few films starring Denzel Washington I have actually seen or reviewed. I have long recognized him as a great actor and I have enjoyed the works I have seen that he is featured in, but her remains one of the great actors whose filmography I have limited direct experience with. So, as I debated today which of the films to knock off my “want to watch” list, it was unsurprising that The Book Of Eli with Denzel Washington leapt to the top of the list.

Recently, I saw a preview for The Book Of Eli before another film and I was intrigued. I was quite surprised that I had missed the film in theaters. Perhaps I let it pass by because I was not yet a big fan of The Walking Dead (season 1 reviewed here!) or the whole post-apocalyptic genre. Now that I am, though, I was eager to watch The Book Of Eli and for the most part it did not disappoint.

In the wake of a cataclysm, a lone man hunts a cat in a burned-out forest before wandering on to the nearest shell of a former city. After a night in the house of a hanged man, he encounters a band of ruffians on the road. After dispatching of them and witnessing a motorcycle gang kill and rape two others, he continues west to a small town of survivors. There, the local power is Carnegie – the one who hired the motorcycle gang – whose sole objective is to find a book. The man fends off an attack from the motorcycle gang’s leader when trying to get his water refilled.

In refusing to take advantage of Solara or her blind mother, the man (Eli) inadvertently reveals to Carnegie that he has the very book Carnegie has been searching the world over for. But, while Carnegie wants the book, a bible, to enslave and control, Eli moves west in search of a place where his faith might be rewarded and he can help rebuild the world. After Eli moves on, Solara follows him and he must rescue her from bandits and together the two head west, trying to elude Carnegie and his forces.

My fundamental problem with The Book Of Eli comes from how it buys into the most common conceits of the genre. The post-apocalyptic genre commonly portrays a world where man is set against every other man in a desperate fight for survival. While many of the dystopian situations intrigued me, now it has become a common genre and one where I find myself less impressed by the continuation of. I completely understand how, facing the destruction of the world we know, most people will become frustrated and fight over the last canned foods, stockpile guns and water and hunker down to defend what little they have. I get that (I have a plan for myself and my family in that regard), but the stories that take place longer after the actual apocalypse are rapidly becoming passé. The films seldom illustrate how the human spirit endures and our desire for freedom is stronger than the quest to dominate.

Thirty years after the apocalypse, it is hard to imagine even the degenerates will still believe they can get anything of use by raping and killing anyone who passes by. Far more likely, in the wake of the established world order coming to an end, after a few years of unpleasantness, the survivors hunker down in houses that they do not pay mortgages on, farm what they can grow and hunt what they can eat enough to survive. So, while the setting of The Book Of Eli - the desert wasteland of the American West – seems initially intriguing, it really is more of a cliché now than anything audacious.

That said, I like the philosophical bent of The Book Of Eli. The Book Of Eli is basically about people from the world before the war that wiped out humanity attempting to bring religion back to the world. It’s the classic story of using religion to exert power (as represented by Carnegie) vs. a person of actual faith (Eli). The Book Of Eli is laudable for taking the view that is unpopular in the current political climate that organized religion is the cause of more suffering than it is the source of joy and a positive series of guidelines for people to live by in order to live better with one another. I like that about the film.

As for the characters, they are more average than truly memorable or distinctive. Carnegie is a monolithic villain, a senseless evil who wants to dominate and exerts his power over those around him. Eli is a monolithic good, despite the methods he lives by in order to protect the book. The unfortunate character is Solara. She is a generic sidekick and rapebait, who is not given a real chance to evolve in the film.

Still, the principles in The Book Of Eli are good. Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, and Jennifer Beals each make the most out of their time on screen, even if their characters are more one-dimensional than incredible. Gary Oldman plays another villain who is well-created by the versatile actor, though the role seems more familiar than new. The same can be said for Denzel Washington; he plays Eli well, but it seems well within his established range.

Directors Albert and Allen Hughes make The Book Of Eli look good; in fact, in the case of the costumes, too good. Thirty years after the apocalypse, it is hard to believe there are no bibles, but there are (apparently) sweatshops. The clothes on many of the characters look underworn and that is a detail that is way off. The soundtrack sounded a lot like the main theme from Prometheus (reviewed here!), which actually made me respect that film just a little less for being derivative. Even so, The Book Of Eli is good, but for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, it has very little we have not already seen before.

For other post-apocalyptic visions, please visit my reviews of:
I Am Legend
Jeremiah - Season 1


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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