This past friday, I had the pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington's new movie, The Book of Eli. As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and a Christian, this movie was fairly designed with me as the target demographic. For me, this movie fired on all cylenders. It's a great action movie, filmed well (meaning the movie looks great), as well as getting me to think a bit. It's also nice to see two superb actors -- Washington and Oldman -- working at the top of their game.
I've been known to ramble on about the reasons why I like this genre, and why I think it cycles through popular culture every few years. I think post-apocalyptic fiction is cathartic. It says "everything about our culture and civilization sucks, and something even more nasty comes along and wipes the slate clean." Sure, it's meant to be cautionary and terrifying, a sort of wake up call to get our acts together, but because there are survivors this kind of story ultimately becomes hopeful and uplifting. Even in the Mad Max movies, it's Mel Gibson's character's nobility and strength of character that wins the day. Perhaps, the genre says, this time we as a species will get things right. Perhaps this time, when we rebuild, we'll get our priorities straight. This is certainly the implied message of Book of Eli.
It's been 30 years after some kind of nuclear war that's left the world severely underpopulated, and apparently sepia-toned. What few people remain have been reduced to living at an animalistic, primal level. Roaming gangs descend on each other to steal the other's water and eat the losers. Across this bleak wasteland walks Eli, carrying a bible (the last known bible) to the west coast. Along the way, he runs into Gary Oldman, who runs a shanty-town of survivors and plans to expand the franchise. He wants to use Eli's bible to motivate his roving gangs of bandits; he wants to harness religious fervor for his own political ends. All Eli wants is to reach his destination.
The movie makes some great, subtle points. Why is Eli walking west? Where is he going? Even he doesn't know, as he's walking by faith. See, he's heard a voice tell him not only where to find the bible, but also where to take it. Oh, and he's protected along the way, too. It reminded me of the 12 disciples being sent out into the world by Christ to deliver his message. Eli tells Mila Kunis' character about life before the bombs, when people threw out things that survivors fight over now. There's a subtle moment when Eli says, and I paraphrase, "I've been reading this book for so long, it's time I put what it says into practice." Great stuff, delivered surreptitiously.
The production values of this movie are really great; everything has a washed-out, dusty appearance. The cinematography mutes the colors and makes the sun shine just a little too brightly for everything to be normal. The production designers didn't craft wacky cars or buildings using the detritus of civilization (I'm looking at you, Beyond Thunderdome). I believed in this future. The action was both harrowing and exciting; I believed Eli was in danger, might not make it through to the end. And once I witnessed his badassness, I came to fear for his antagonists. Oldman underplays his villain, even though the first time we see him he's reading a biography of Mussolini (which pretty much tells you where he's coming from). It would have been an easy choice for his character to chew through the scenery as an over-the-top, moustache-twirling villain. Instead, by restraining himself he makes the horror of what he wants to do even more chilling. Washington plays Eli as a quiet man of faith with a sword; he's a warrior-monk in the traditional sense.
There were things, however, I did not believe. Unfortunately, it's the central premise of the movie. After the war, the survivors systematically destroyed every bible they could find, because "it had caused the war." Really? That's what occupied everyone's time? Not finding water and food. But destroying bibles. "Hey, everyone! Forget surviving radiation sickness; let's destroy bibles!" They didn't also destroy Korans and Torahs (we even see these in the movie), but only bibles. And even though the population has been decimated, they were apparently super-thorough; it's not like there's some bibles in a church someplace the survivors couldn't get to. This is a ridiculous, though necessary, plot point that really pulled me out of the story.
On to the Big Reveal. There is a great plot twist in the movie (actually, a couple of them). One you would think I would find even more unrealistic than the whole "last bible on earth" nonsense. Indeed, I suspect, once everyone's seen the movie and we can talk about the surprise openly, this will be the one thing people non-believers will complain about as being "unbelievable." I won't say anything more about it than I completely buy it. In fact, the Big Reveal made the movie for me.
Some may suggest Book of Eli isn't science fiction at all, given its religious undertones and decided lack of science. A similar argument was made over at io9.com about another science fiction/religious story -- A Canticle for Liebowitz. There were more than a few moments of Book of Eli that reminded me of Canticle. I can't say they were unappreciated. Canticle tells the story of a monastery finding a cache of lost knowledge after a nuclear holocaust, preserving it through the centuries, becoming central in a new Renaissance, and attempting to survive another nuclear war a thousand years later. While Walter Miller was saying something about the fundamental sinfulness of man, for me what resonated was the importance of knowledge and its preservation. When you see the movie, you'll understand why I bring this up.
Overall, I give Book of Eli high marks. Cinematically, the sets, costumes and cinematography make for a believable world. There's the right amount of action and story. Aside from the ridiculous premise for Eli's trek across the country, I found the story extremely satisfying. Others may find the religious aspect off-putting or unbelievable, especially the Big Reveal, but I had no problems with the film's overall message.