I did not expect much from The Book of Eli. I mean, Denzel Washington’s star is much dimmer than his Training Days and I’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic movies to fill a catalog of world ending scenarios. But the Hughes brothers surprised me. Eli is an ordinary take on a “war ends the world” scenario, but with extra-ordinary goals. It has more to say than your average action flick and I enjoyed it.
So it’s 40 or so years in the post-apocalyptic future. Nuclear war has left almost everyone dead and the rest hungry, thirsty, and scared. The United States is a future version of the old west with small towns, saloons, revolvers, and people fighting for water and food.
Like those in The Road, some people have even resorted to cannibalism–you can tell them by their hand ‘shakes.’ Eating people gives you the shakes, it would appear. Puzzled and intrigued, I did some quick research on this and no published science studies have tested the longterm effects of eating human meat, but common causes of shaky hands are: hyperthyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, senile tremors, and Xanex withdrawal. I don’t think human meat is like Xanex, but they do say anxiety can be a cause. I can think of little to feel more anxious about than eating your fellow man. Perhaps that’s it.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a man on a mission. He has a book he must take out west and protect, though he doesn’t quite know where or why; he’s just following the ‘signs.’ In an early scene, some street ruffians try to rob him. Big mistake. All are dead on the ground in less than a minute and Eli, he barely breaks a sweat. His abilities seem almost supernatural. I certainly wouldn’t mess with him.
Carnegie (Gary Oldman) is a corrupt town leader who’s been hunting down the ‘book’ for decades. Oldman is one of my favorite villains and does not disappoint as Carnegie, whose smile thinly veils a familiar lust for power and control. Along with Eli, he is one of only a few old enough to remember the world as it was and how to read. When his biker brutes bring him copies of Oprah Magazine and The Da Vinci Code he nearly snaps at their incompetence. He’s a wise man in a dumb age.
Anyone can guess where the plot is heading, and Eli travels down that familiar bad vs good road, but with a few big surprises that I do not intend to spoil. This movie reveals what this special book of Eli’s is, yes, but it’s more about what the book represents. I have to credit screenwriter Gary Whitta for a story that has a few big “holy shit” moments in it. His writing, brought to life by the directing of the Hughes brothers, has M. Night Shamalan style twists, but doesn’t rest entirely on its ‘gotcha’ moments, like a Shyamalan film might.
The cinematography in Eli ranges from acceptable to amazing. We see many postcard moments as he walks through the ruins of the western United States, and a lot of slow motion shots of people walking down the road. The Hughes brothers are at their best during the action scenes though, which are often reminiscent of Children of Men, and that’s a good thing. One scene in particular has Carnegie shooting up a house where Eli and Solara (Mila Kunis) are hiding. Instead of the usual close-up shots of the bad guys followed by close-up shots of the good guys, the camera runs straight into the danger. The audience hops through windows and into bullet fire, even running under an exploding car to get the best angle. It’s brief, but one of the coolest shoot-offs I’ve seen.
My only big complaint is that there is more product placement in The Book of Eli than most non-post-apocalyptic films. Puma, GMC, and KFC all get their logos displayed. The best placement goes to Busch though. Somehow a lone Busch beer truck with a prestine blue and gold logo made it through the nuclear apocalypse and 40 years of rain, dirt, and grime without a single chip of paint missing. It also happens to be perfectly located in the one spot Eli stops and stares at for several minutes. Sadly though, even Star Trek had Budweiser and Nokia ads in it. If Star Trek isn’t safe, what movie is?
The Book of Eli seems to straddle the line between mindless violence and grander ideas. In the end, I enjoyed the mindless violence, the crazy plot twists, and I liked the message, which stops short of preaching. Denzel needed a role like this. I’m glad he tried something new and decided to kick some ass.
Score: 4 out of 5