It would be very easy to dismiss The Book of Eli as simply another post-apocalyptic mishmash of Mad Max, the Western genre and the innumerable desolate wastelands we’ve seen on film before. Certainly, it has all those elements.
Fortunately, however, the film does bring something else to the table that helps to elevate it above your run-of-the-mill, end of the world story. The Bible.
The Bible is central not only to The Book of Eli’s title but also forms the principal point of conflict for the film’s characters and an audience.
Traveling across the United States, Eli (Denzel Washington) is on a quest to get to the West Coast. In his possession he has the only surviving copy of the Bible (the King James version to be exact). It is 30 years after an unexplained apocalyptic event has taken place, and Eli moves across the barren wasteland slowly, on foot.
Stopping only to gather water and supplies (where they become available) and fight off roaming bandits, it soon becomes apparent that he knows how to take care of himself – despite his age.
Visiting a rundown town to recharge a battery and barter for water, Eli encounters its leader, Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Like himself, Carnegie is a literate man who is on a quest concerning the Gospel, although his motives are of a much more sinister nature. Carnegie believes that once in his possession, the Bible will allow him to control the masses through its message of hope and redemption.
This then becomes the dominant struggle of the story as both men battle to achieve their individual goals.
Regardless of your beliefs, the reason The Book of Eli works so well is that the events which take place in the film are linked to a tangible or real world ideological concern and the positioning of its characters allows a viewer to interpret the subjects of faith, religion and belief from a variety of different perspectives.
You have the diehard believer who trusts ‘blindly’ no matter what the circumstances (Eli), the curious but uninitiated sceptic (Solara – Eli’s protege/side-kick) and the power hungry individual (Carnegie) who has no interest in the betterment of the world and is only concerned with how he can control others by wielding the book of the Christian faith.
The film deals with themes which carry significant weight in society and it asks an audience to think about these issues while watching the film and continues to question them once they have left the cinema. The result?
The Book of Eli is instantly more memorable and the film challenges a viewer to interrogate what they believe regarding Christianity and their own convictions. Personally, the film inspired and provoked me and, in my opinion, that’s exactly what good filmmaking should do.
Is the film over-saturated with religious themes and symbolism? I would say no. The Hughes brothers have managed to balance action, drama and ideas rather well. The film does not preach but also does not forget what it is about.
From a filmmaking perspective, visually The Book of Eli is washed out and drained of colour – perfectly communicating that a nuclear disaster has taken place. The action sequences are tightly choreographed, stylishly shot and edited – not holding back on the gore. And, as always, Denzel is an absolute professional.
The directors, the Hughes brothers, and scriptwriter Gary Whitta also manage to throw the audience a couple of nice curve balls as the film heads towards its climax.
The Book of Eli, however, does stumble in areas.
Mila Kunis’ portrayal of Solara is stiff and uninspired and her performance has a paint-by-numbers feel to it. While watching the film, I got the impression that she was merely doing what was required of her and not adding much else.
Also, the film does drag in certain areas and the Hughes brothers, instead of getting to the point, feel the need to repeatedly extend certain elements. For example: they continually highlight the laboriousness of Eli’s quest by using the same technique of slowly dissolving from shot to shot – ad nauseam – whenever he is on the road.
These minor issues aside, I found The Book of Eli to be both engaging and stimulating because it uses a very real, ideological issue so effectively to centre its story. Not everyone will see things the same way I have but the themes of faith and religion give the film a significant amount of substance and this ensures that it won’t be forgotten the instant the credits roll.
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