From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Book of Eli: The Sacred Apocalypse

The end times are upon us. Again.

Hollywood’s long-standing love affair with the apocalypse is once again in full bloom. Truly, who can deny the joys of struggling to survive in barbaric, radiation-blasted wastelands, where bloodthirsty savages lurk in the rubble, and the lucky ones die quickly?

I’m not sure what we find so attractive about the end of the world, but we keep coming back to it, time after time. In the late sixties/early seventies, we had films like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and A Boy and His Dog. The eighties brought us Testament, Night of the Comet, and the Mad Max movies. Now, Tinseltown is gleefully destroying civilization once again, with 2012, The Road, and what must surely be among the oddest of entries in this venerable tradition–the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli.

The apocalypse has been subjected to a number of treatments in the movies, from grim social consciousness to rugged action/adventure to dark humor. The trailers for Eli may lead you to expect a Mad Max shoot-’em-up. But while the film certainly has its share of flying bullets–and some nifty knife work–it’s actually more of a spiritual quest, a tale of holding to faith through the worst of times. I’m not sure I buy it either way.

eli_kidsEli (Denzel Washington), like Max before him, is the archetypal Lone Wanderer, walking through the ruins of civilization in the aftermath of war and environmental catastrophe. He’s badass, of course, able to take on marauders ten at a time and emerge unscathed. But unlike Max, Eli has a purpose and a destination: he’s headed west, and he carries with him a book of great importance–the world’s last remaining Bible.

He’s not looking for trouble, but he finds it when he runs afoul of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the self-appointed ruler of a small frontier town, who just happens to be seeking a Bible of his very own–though for purposes considerably less noble than Eli’s. Reluctantly teamed with a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis), Eli must escape the ruthless Carnegie and make his way “west,” though he’s not entirely sure why.

The film is shot with a grainy, washed-out look, the better to emphasize the stark emptiness of post-apocalyptic America. Washington and Oldman assay their respective roles as well as you would expect–although one suspects that by this point, Oldman can do crazed heavies in his sleep. The rest of the cast turn in serviceable performances. Michael Gambon is memorable in a small role a million miles away from the kindly Albus Dumbledore, and there’s a cameo at the end that might make the anarchist in you smile.

And of course no end-of-the-world flick is complete without a little humorous commentary on the present day. Dan Brown and Anita Ward fans will be delighted to learn that the works of their heroes fare better in the aftermath than does the Bible. Alert viewers will also pick up on some small homages to predecessor films in the genre.

A lot of logical questions go unanswered in Eli, and the ending features a twist that, while effective at the time, strains credibility in retrospect. But more problematic is that the film seems to struggle with itself, as it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. The conflict between Eli and Carnegie, which drives the action/adventure part of the story, is a bit labored. Screenwriter Gary Whitta works hard to give Carnegie some plausible motivation for coveting the book, but the viewer is still left wondering whether a power-hungry madman wouldn’t be better off seeking a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince instead, or Mein Kampf. Or maybe even How To Win Friends and Influence People.


On the other hand, the religious angle is fumbled and largely ignored until the end. Eli is able to quote from the Bible with ease–such as when he’s about to wipe out a roomful of bad guys (à la Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, sans the snazzy black suit)–but he doesn’t seem particularly guided by the principles it espouses. Here’s a great dramatic opportunity–Eli facing up to the hard choices he’s had to make on his long journey–that goes by with little more than a passing mention. One wonders if a scene involving a despondent, weeping Eli contemplating his past deeds and sins of omission wound up on the cutting room floor. Instead, we see Solara asking Eli to read a bit of the Good Book to her, and him responding with a rather trite and obvious selection. You can probably guess it without me telling you.

The result is a film as muddled and murky as its cinematography. It strives to be both a hard-hitting action flick and a moving tale of unyielding faith–and falls somewhat short of both. That’s not to call it a total failure, though. Some parts are affecting, and might in themselves be worth the price of admission. But The Book of Eli seems destined to be a cinematic curiosity, an odd combination of tastes with limited appeal, more like wasabi ice cream than chocolate and peanut butter.

Those who are willing to absolve Eli of its sins will find themselves in a somewhat confusing Promised Land. The rest will just have to wait until the next apocalypse, coming soon to a theater near you.

rotundoMatthew S. Rotundo is an award-winning author whose fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Volume XXV, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Jim Baen’s Universe. Though he lives in Nebraska, he has husked corn only once, and has never been detasseling, so he insists he is not a hick.

Visit his blog.

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