Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli (2010; dir. Albert and Allen Hughes) is more like The Road Warrior (1981) than The Road (2009), with a dash of Song of Bernadette (1943) thrown in for good measure. The palette of colors is similar to that in The Road—grays, black, white—dust and desolation everywhere--except that faces have color, and as the main character Eli approaches the West Coast in his trek across the continent we begin to see green.

The scenario here is that 38 years in the past a terrible war destroyed human civilization and most of the world’s population. The bombs left a hole in the ozone layer, so that the sun’s rays burned directly through the atmosphere, destroying most animal and plant life. Only roving bands of marauders and renegades and a few good souls are left. Men are killed, women are raped and killed, and there is some cannibalism—judging from the welcoming elderly couple we meet at one point. We don’t know many details of the war, though we do get to see ruins and a few craters.

Eli is one of the good souls. He discovered the last remaining copy of the Bible and is protecting it. Yes, the Bible. Of all the millions of copies in the world, only one remains. For some reason survivors of the war blamed the destruction on religion, apparently on Christianity, and they destroyed every copy of the Bible they could find. Eli has heard a voice, and he is trekking across the continent towards a place where the voice has told him the Bible will be safe.

Eli is a whiz with the bow and arrow, and he ruthlessly kills anyone who threatens him or people in his care, specifically Solara (Mila Kunis), an attractive young woman whom he rescues from the band that has taken her hostage. One man in particular, Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, a man so savage that no one will mention his name (does this suggest another character played by Oldman?), is hunting for the Bible in Eli’s possession. We assume he wants to destroy it, though we learn differently later on. There, essentially, you have this film’s plot. Eli heading west, Carnegie looking for him, and we know some encounter is inevitable.

Like Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington plays himself in most films, and he usually does a good job of it. He is effective enough as Eli in this one. It’s the plot that’s at fault, and the essential concept underlying the film. That concept is that God has chosen Eli as his personal assistant, and he has assured Eli of safe passage as he heads west across the continent, whacking everyone who threatens him, piously certain of his purpose and destination.

I don’t object to religious films or religious themes or religious people. I object to the fraudulence of this film. Only at the end do we learn that Eli is blind, and that he has been guided all the way through his travels by God’s hand. When the Bible he has protected is taken from him (he gives it up to Carnegie to save Solara’s life), he heads on to California, and finds a fortress on the island of Alcatraz where all the relics of western culture are protected. The one item the fortress doesn’t have is the Bible, and Eli, grievously wounded, proceeds to recite it, word for word, before he dies. He has memorized it from the Braille edition he had carried with him.

Why do I object? The film itself plods along and is mildly entertaining but not excessively so. It is full of improbabilities large and small. Primary among them is the notion that every single copy of the Bible in the WORLD has been destroyed, save one. Also important is the notion that people were so mad at the Christians after the apocalyptic war that, rather than struggling to survive and rebuild their lives, they hunt down the Bibles and destroy them. Underlying the film then is the notion that Christians in our own world are imperiled and persecuted and are also the bearers of the light of Western Civilization. I reject this notion, though I do understand that many accept it. The voice that guides Eli in his journey, that aims his arrows straight and true, is a matter of faith, I suppose, but I believe that if God exists and that if he has an impact on the world (this is fairly implausible to me) it is through the actions of people who believe in him. I don’t believe he reaches down and guides a blind man across America in killing outlaws and shooting arrows and otherwise wreaking havoc on behalf of the holy book he carries. God if he exists is not like Jim Henson, or the designer of a video game.

If God is on Eli’s side, then God removes any dramatic tension or uncertainty from his journey. Who cares what threats he might face—he will succeed in his mission.

We are supposed to feel awestruck and humbled when the great revelation of Eli’s blindness comes. Instead I felt deceived. Cheap pandering tricks don’t win converts or make good films.

If you’re disappointed that I gave away the point, thank me for saving you the time you would have wasted had you watched this film.

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