I was reading up on blaxploitation for a script I’m writing when I discovered that the post-1970s, PC term for the genre is “urban” film. Which led me to John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. The Book of Eli marked the Hughes Brothers second attempt at making a film that is set outside of the “hood.” From the previews I went in with low expectations, but my friend had already seen Broken Embraces and the small Isla Vista theater offered nothing else of note. I wish it had.
The film begins slowly. The audience watches a masked man stalk a cat before killing it with a bow and arrow. From the onset the Hughes Brothers create a wonderfully barren and desolate post-apocalyptic nightmare of a world. Eli’s first encounter with another (living) human does not go so well. He is the target of a highway ambush that he thwarts with a display of lightning quick reaction and precise movement. Nobody is left standing. The Hughes Brothers chose to show this display in silhouette, adding to the mysterious nature of the wanderer Eli.
For the next 45 minutes or better, we are treated to several scenes that display Eli’s ability to kill anything and everything that stands in his way. If I liked one thing about this movie, it was the action. In the bar, run by Carnegie and his gang, Eli slays twenty men before Solara’s shrill cry stops him. Not only does Eli dispose of twenty men, he does so without a scratch to his own person. Which makes the twist all the more unbelievable.
He’s blind. Eli is blind. And we, the audience, are led to believe that Eli was able to do this because of faith. Not God exactly, because the film is careful not to make mention of a specific God, but faith. Eli explains his quest to carry the book “west” to a skeptical Solara. He tells her that he heard a voice and traveled west. Presumably his faith had protected him ever since. In some kind of reverse deus ex machina fashion, we are supposed to swallow his supernatural abilities because of faith. Not because he’s a prophet or an angel and not even because God was protecting him. Nope, the Hughes Brothers made sure to trivialize his entire journey with one shot.
The key, as my sister has told me time and time again, to creating a successful story is stakes. What is on the line? The question any filmmaker must ask their self is why is this character risking everything? The answer in the Book of Eli is simply because a voice told him to do it. That is not a good enough reason in and of itself, but the payoff at the end of the film could save everything, right? Wrong. Eli has carried this book, which is just a bible, all the way to Alcatraz for thirty years so that….Malcolm McDowell (who looks suspiciously like Einstein) can copy it down and put it on a shelf next to all the other religious texts. The shot in which the book is placed next to the Qur’an solidifies that Eli’s journey was pointless. It could have been any book, apparently the point of the whole film is preservation. His thirty year journey did not save lives or end a war, it just preserved an ancient tradition.
And yet, I could not help but feel that the film did have one overt message: THE BIBLE IS IMPORTANT. After the film, one friend denounced it as a Christian film and the other thought the shot of the other holy books made it a non-Christian film. I agreed with both. What the Hughes Brothers did exactly was make a Christian film that pacifies everyone else. The fact is they chose the bible (I was really hoping that the eponymous book would be a fictitious one) and not any other book. Carnegie’s character is after the Bible and not any other book, even though he wants to use religion to control people. Any religion would work, but he is after the bible specifically. This book was the one that was worth killing people for, destroying towns for and walking thirty years for. The shot of the other books makes Eli’s Christian pilgrimage more acceptable, but it does not erase the fact that the bible is the book that protected him on his journey. They even killed poor Eli in the end, despite arriving at Alcatraz where they’re working on rebuilding society. He was there long enough to recite the entire Bible, but they were unable, in all that time, to remove a bullet from his stomach. The reason? God loves a martyr. Dressed in a saintly white, Eli could finally be canonized.
Problems with the story aside, Denzel turns in another solid performance. Solara suffered from bad writing and a silly character arc. The fact that the film ends with her dressed as a post-apocalyptic warrior, an Eli clone, is laughable (The Book of Solara?). Gary Oldman’s performance seemed to be a poor impersonation of Daniel Day Lewis. And of course they shot him in the knee, because limping is all the rage for antiheros and bad guys these days (see There Will Be Blood).
Something should be said of the Hughes Brothers’ visual ability. The film looked amazing and the action sequences almost make the entire experience worthwhile. Almost. Unfortunately, you will find it difficult to leave the theater without feeling that you’ve been duped. Or at the very least fed a backhanded Christian message. The whole time I watched the film I was interested to see what was so special about this Eli, and the answer was nothing. Another way to view the film could be that it is a positive message of self-assurance and dedication to a particular belief. That would require ignoring the obvious overtones.
Let’s hope that Edge of Darkness and From Paris With Love (both previewed before the Book of Eli) will provide the gratuitous action porn minus the convoluted twist.