When I first heard about The Book Of Eli, some time in November, I was legitimately excited. Hughes Brothers+Denzel+post-apocalyptic seemed like a recipe for success. Maybe I was naive, but I actually didn’t even assume the book in question would be the Bible. I found that out well before the movie came out, but it didn’t dissuade me from wanting to see it. I actually don’t mind a religious aspect in movies as long as it doesn’t reek of overt Christian agenda. The Book Of Eli didn’t…..at first.
You can probably guess how the movie begins. The Waterworld comparison is valid. The first 30 minutes or so aquaint us with a grizzled, haggard Denzel Washington, who may or may not be named Eli, struggling to get by in a dirty, disgusting world. Each person is uglier, more brutal than the last. Technology has vanished, no one has water, and rape and murder are commonplace. Denzel is the distrusted outsider (“Who is he?”, “Where could he have come from?”, “I don’t trust him!”). The good news is he’s an awesome fighter and he has plenty of stuff to trade with the resident kooky old man running the ramshackle trading post. “I’ll give you 4 gadgets for 3 gidgets,” Denzel’d say. And the old man would narrow his eyes and be like, (long pause)”2 gidgets.”
Eventually our hero runs into Gary Oldman* and his gang of dirty biker hooligans, who are a carbon copy of Dennis Hopper’s gang of “smokers” from Waterworld. Oldman, we immediately find out, is obsessively looking for a book, and of course its Eli’s book, aka the Bible. And let me tell ya, our boy looks bad. Real bad. He’s 30 pounds heavier than you’ve ever seen him and he doesn’t wear it well. His face looked so gross I’m still not sure how much was makeup and how much was him. I’m scared to find out. I know its lame to rag on an actor’s appearance, and I genuinely like Oldman, but this was distracting. And his character, the refined-and-educated-yet-vicious-and-violent warlord, has been done to death. He played the exact same character in The Fifth Element, for Christ’s sake. That time he wanted the stones, this time he wants the book.
*Oldman’s character is known only as “Carnegie”. I thought that was pretty funny.
Waterworld similarity aside, I actually didn’t dislike this movie initially. Denzel is still a great actor, and it was nice to see him play a character who wasn’t swaggering and hard-smiling all the time. He managed to blend the required stoicism with just enough personality so the character wasn’t boring and one-dimensional. It was well done. Like I said, he’s a good actor. I don’t think anyone is disputing that.
As the movie goes on, however, the Bible plugs become more frequent. Oldman speaks passionately about how, if he could only gain access to this one book, he could use it to conquer the world. I wanted to think this was an admission by the Hughes Brothers that religion is used primarily for evil*, but eventually it becomes clear this was not their intent. A little too clear. In fact, the one thing Oldman and Denzel (the only two people in this brave new world old and educated enough to remember the Bible) agree on throughout the movie is that the human race simply cannot reach its potential without The Bible. Without that book, we are condemned to a life of mindless savagery.
*I don’t know much about the Hughes Brothers’ personal beliefs, and I made it a point not to do any digging. I didn’t want my opinion tainted, and I knew it would be if I found out they were hardcore Christians before seeing the movie. I knew Denzel loved him some Jesus, but that didn’t mean the movie itself necessarily had an agenda, at least not in my mind.
So where did all the Bibles go? I almost don’t want to tell you. Too tragic. Turns out there was this nuclear war, and afterward the world was set on fire by a hole in the ozone. When the hole finally repaired itself (presumably), and humanity could pick up the pieces of its destroyed world, they needed someone to blame. So, in their ignorance and grief, they hunted down every Bible in the world and burned them all. Sweet irony! You know, because people don’t usually burn the Bible. Usually they burn other books because of the Bible. Not this time, though. This time the holiest of all tomes was just an innocent scapegoat. Book-as-martyr!
Again, you’d like to think the movie is winking at you. You’d like to think they’ll eventually make light of this paradox they’re foisting upon us. Nope. Turns out we’re actually supposed to feel sorry for the Bible. After all, it was burned. Burning books is bad. No need to think any deeper than that. No irony here. Ignorance and Christianity have always been at odds, obviously. Only the most reasonable, enlightened people follow Jesus. Don’t believe me? Head south, they’ll show ya whats what.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Eli. Well, the deal is, God told Eli where to find the last Bible, and he told him to take it West. So for 30 years, thats what Eli has been doing. I guess Oldman’s shanty town must be like 99% of the way there, because after 30 years of travel it only takes Eli a few days to get West after he and the gang part ways. Mila Kunis is in tow playing the classic helpless (yet determined) female accomplice who is totally unnecessary to the plot. I like Kunis, but in a post-apocalyptic setting she stuck out like a sore thumb. This is the girl who cut her teeth on That 70s Show, after all. Her voice alone renders her totally incompatible with anything intended to be dark. She didn’t embarrass herself, she just shouldn’t be in the movie. As opposed to Ray Stephenson, who fit right in. Stephenson has only, and will only, play roles in which he kills many people. Makes me wonder if he’s tough in real life. I bet he smokes a lot.
I’ll say this for The Book of Eli: as a movie, it definitely isn’t terrible. Truth be told, I might’ve been writing a very different review if not for the ending. But the ending happens, and there’s no avoiding it. It takes what could’ve been, and actually basically is, a really cool twist, and buries it under a truly horrendous final 5 minutes. It was disappointing, because the twist almost won me over. But what happens after is inexcusable, and changes the way the rest of the movie has to be considered. Spoilers below:
Oldman eventually shoots Eli and gets the Bible. He takes it back to his Deadwood style bar/base of operations, and gets one of his henchmen to pry open the lock (yes, it has a lock). As this is happening, Denzel and Kunis get to San Francisco (west), and find their way to a hidden enclave of civilization where all books are kept and copied…..all save one. Denzel announces that he has a copy of the King James Bible, and is immediately admitted to the enclave and greeted as a hero. This is the book they’ve been waiting for! The book that will save them all! Denzel sits down with Malcolm MacDowell, head of this new paradise of learning, and says he’ll show him the Bible. This left me thinking there had been some lame switch-out and that Denzel still had the real book. Not true. We cut back to Oldman opening the Bible, and it turns out the book was in braille. Denzel was blind the whole time! Now we revisit the Denzel/Macdowell parlay, and see our hero, on his deathbed, reciting the verses from memory while Caligula MacDowell scribbles furiously. In all seriousness, I didn’t see this coming and I thought it was pretty cool.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t end there. The next scene is a close-up of a printing press printing Bibles. Lots of Bibles. Then you see Macdowell placing the Bible on a shelf next to the Koran, Torah, and other holy texts. Now, this could be looked at as an homage to other religions. I’m sure that’s what the Hughes Brothers will say it is. They’re full of shit, for two reasons:
1) The Bible is noticeably bigger, newer and nicer than all the other holy books, and is placed right square in the middle, center screen.
2) This enlightened New World Order had apparently wanted to start a renaissance for quite some time, but they needed to find a Bible first. They had the guns, they had the technology, and they had literally every other book, but it was the Bible they truly needed. Not the Koran, not the Torah, THE BIBLE. Bible is life, all else is details.
As if this blatant Christian ministry wasn’t enough, the last scene we’re treated to is Kunis dressed up in Denzel’s old clothes (complete with shades and giant knife) heading back the way she came. MacDowell tells her she can stay, and her response is that she “needs to go home.” The same home she risked life and limb to escape not one week earlier. No explanation given. Music plays, credits roll, Hatt shakes his head in disgust.
Next Week: Legion