“The Book of Eli”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

| January 16, 2010

I didn’t have plans to go see “The Book of Eli”, even though the trailer made it look like “Fallout 3: The Movie” (I happen to be a big fan of “Fallout 3“). But then I read some early reviews that indicated that “Eli” might indeed be worth seeing, so my sweet wife Sandra and I went yesterday.

I’m glad we did. And she is, too.

I won’t recap the plot here, except to say that Eli (Denzel Washington) is carrying a book west across the devastated North American continent, and Carnegie (Gary Oldman) — who runs his own ruined town — wants that specific book.Oldman uses every tactic he can think of to persuade or force Eli to hand over the book.

“Eli” is a truly fascinating and remarkable movie. On one level, it’s a stylized post-apocalyptic samurai movie. On another, it is a classic Greek drama, with archetypes, divine intervention, and inexorable consequences. On yet a third, it is a morality play about Good and Evil, one that could have roots in the Middle Ages. Finally, it is a subtle yet profound treatise on faith in general and on Christian faith in particular. There are layers upon layers here, particularly as the film reaches its denouement — and said denouement means that I will go back into the theaters to see it a second time with new eyes.

My main criticism is the language, the principle reason for the ‘R’ rating. (Yes, there is violence, but it is very stylized and not much different from what you’ve seen in films such as “The Lord of the Rings”.)  It wasn’t necessary (the Greeks didn’t need it in their plays), though it did serve as a marker between characters on either side of the great divide.

The acting was excellent; the directing was outstanding; the art direction was very effective (and, yes, the film looked a lot like “Fallout 3”). What was most telling, though, was the depth of characterization and writing. “Eli” shows just how banal and shallow “Avatar”‘ is, both in story and characterization. In particular, Gary Oldman’s character — Carnegie — is vastly more believable, sympathetic and effective as an antagonist than either Parker Selfridge (the corporate scum) or Col. Miles Quaritch (the military scum) in “Avatar”.  Likewise, the religious themes in “Avatar” come across as rather goofy feel-good New Age-ism compared to the themes of faith, sacrifice, and suffering in “Eli”.

As John Notle said over at Big Hollywood, “Eli” in the end is a genre movie. But what a genre movie — possibly the best of its kind (though I have to reserve judgment until I see “The Road”).  Your mileage may vary.

SPOILER AFTER THE JUMP

WARNING. SPOILER AND REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS.

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The book that Eli is carrying — and that Carnegie wants more than anything else — is the Bible, apparently the last copy in existence. Carnegie wants it because he knows he can use its language to manipulate people and build his power base. Eli is acting on communications from God — God told him where the Bible was buried and has been guiding him west for 20 to 30 years towards a place where the Bible belongs. Eli’s copy is bound and locked, and Eli has been reading from it “every day” for those same 20-30 years. Eli — who pre-apocalypse was a Wal-Mart greeter — has incredibly keen senses and absolutely deadly fighting skills — unarmed, with a large, sharp knife, or with a gun. He wanders into Carnegie’s town looking for a charge on his external battery for his iPod. A fight in the main saloon (Carnegie’s HQ) leaves several people dead and Carnegie intrigued. He offers Eli a leadership position, unlimited clean water (a rarity), and sex with a beautiful young girl (Solara, the daughter of Carnegie’s woman, Claudia) to stick around; Eli refuses all of it and tries to leave town, even as Carnegie finds out that Eli has a Bible.  Confrontations and chases ensue; they end with Eli shot and lying in the dirt, and Carnegie heading back to town (minus most of his men) with the Bible (Eli told Carnegie where he hid it rather than let Carnegie kill Solara).

REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD

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Eli — instead of going back to town after the Bible — continues west, helped along by Solara (she’s got one of Carnegie’s still-functioning cars). They make it to the ruins of San Francisco, and Eli indicates that they need to head out to the island in the middle of the bay — Alcatraz. There Eli indeed finds a community, one dedicated to rebuilding civilization by collecting and reprinting whatever books they can find. But one book they don’t have is the Bible. Eli, still suffering from his wound (Fisher King, anyone?), tells the leader there to get lots of paper — and begins to recite the KJV Bible entirely from memory.

And we see for the first time that Eli is blind.

Change back to Carnegie’s town. Carnegie has the town engineer carefully pick open the lock on the book. Carnegie opens it — and sees that the Bible is entirely in Braille. He tries to get Claudia (who is blind) to read it, but she claims (with a smile) that it’s been too long since she last read Braille. In the meantime, all of Carnegie’s power structure is falling down — most of his henchmen are dead, and his control over the town evaporates.

Back at Alcatraz, Eli finishes dictating the Bible, then dies from his wounds. But the community there prints a hardbound copy of the Bible and places it among the other religious books in their collection. Solara takes Eli’s weapons and starts to head east back to Carnegie’s town and her mother.

Food for thought.  ..bruce..

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Category: Movies, Reviews

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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