I’m no sociologist, but it would appear that the current socio-economic climate has finally caught up with Hollywood, and they have reacted pretty much as expected: with lots of explosions. The apocalypse has become a major feature in American film, spurred by a fear of the coming end of our time as the dominant country, the collapse of the economy and the imminent ruin of our environment. Whether the apocalypse is caused by the Earth itself (2012), the same vampires who have invaded our pop-culture (last week’s Daybreakers), angels from above (next week’s Legion), causes unknown (The Road) or good old fashioned nuclear war, like this week’s Book Of Eli, humanity’s struggle to survive in the face of doom has become fashionable again despite a brief post-9/11 dip in which it may have been considered tasteless by some. I think this sub-genre can lead to great art in most forms (I haven’t seen the film version of The Road, but the book won the Pulitzer for a reason), but, in film, more often than not, it leads to silly Mad Max rip-offs, as is the case with The Book Of Eli. You should never expect much out of a January action picture, and I’ve certainly seen worse over the years, but The Book Of Eli is just so over-stylized, so self important and so embarrassing for the pretty good actors involved that it crosses the level of normal bad film to pure unintentional hilarity.
The first shot of the film is a pan across a torched field that ends with a slow motion shot of Denzel Washington shooting a cat with an arrow. I know I wasn’t the only one in the theater who cracked up at how over the top the whole thing seemed, and the film never lets up. The Hughes brothers, who directed the film, made their names with the gritty realism of Menace II Society, but have now gone in the complete opposite direction. The Book Of Eli is basically 300 with western iconography. Not only does it have the same gratuitous slow motion violence as the 2007 hit, but it even has the same yellow-tinted color scheme. On the other hand, while 300 had little concern beyond being an ode to the male body, The Book Of Eli tries to stuff its inflated runtime with a series of vacant discussions on the role of religion in society. The first part of the film is basically just Eli (Denzel Washington) wandering around the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the American west before going into a town ruled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). During his wanderings, he is ambushed by a group of cannibals living on the side of the road, whom he promptly kills in a slow-motion swordfight held under a bridge so that it can be silhouetted against the yellow sky. He gets into the town and kills some henchmen in another fight before being brought to Carnegie, who, in an early scene, is shown reading The Prince, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. It turns out that the book-obsessed Carnegie has been searching for a copy of the bible, most of which were burned after the war that caused the devastation. Eli happens to have the last copy on Earth and has to flee the next morning, but not before picking up a follower in Solara (Mila Kunis), Carnegie’s step-daughter and taking part in one more gun battle.
The rest of the film is a chase across the desert because Carnegie wants to use religion to control the masses while Eli just wants faith, but he eventually realizes that the meaning is more important than the words, which is the film’s entire moral lesson. In fact, I believe he actually says that at some point in the film. At the very least, even though it is a Christian bible at the center of the chase, the film does little to moralize in favor of any particular religion. However, if everything your film wants to say is summed up in one sentence by one character, it’s probably too simple to need exposition. The whole thing is just so self-important, so “look at us! Look at us! We have the answer,” that, like most films that are far too simple to get across a major message (not necessarily a bad thing, as simplicity can be desirable, but not in this situation) it almost becomes self-parodic. It fully crosses the line into parody when that message is combined with the film’s stylization.
There is a twist at the end of the film, and I won’t give it away now, but it’s not particularly interesting, and there are some far more surprising moments earlier. For example, Eli still has a working iPod. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one last more than 18 months, so to see one still working after 30 years of wandering through the desert just seemed wrong. Late in the film, Malcolm McDowell shows up for an extended cameo and what should have been a more serious moment is interrupted by the surprised laughter of the audience (of course, I saw it in a theater full of film critics who also immediately recognized McDowell, I guess there’d be less laughter during a normal showing). In one of the film’s stranger sequences, Eli and Solara meet an old couple on the road who first try to capture them, then act nice, then try to eat them and then try to save them. It just shows that the film’s tone is all over the place, which makes all the heavy style seem messy and lazy. There’s also the question as to what this pretty good group of actors is doing here. Washington and Oldman have both made their share of bad films, but they had to get better offers than this at some point. Eli is barely defined past “earnest guy with a raspy voice” and Carnegie is just “manipulative leader.” Tom Waits plays a local man who helps Eli and, in what may be a first for me, the simple joy of seeing him on screen just wasn’t enough to make me like the film. Maybe he should have done the score, which was completely unmemorable without him.
There’s a part of me that really wants to believe that the film was self-aware, that Hollywood can laugh at its own absurd, over the top antics, but I can’t. It’s just too much. The film contains dozens of beautiful long shots of the burnt out west, but these are intercut with oddly framed close-ups, far too serious violence and simplistic color choices. As a comedy, it somehow manages to be the perfect combination of two of Hollywood’s worst standby genres: the too-simple-for-its-own-good message movie and the needlessly stylized action film. It doesn’t just combine these things, it exaggerates them. It is pure silly and empty style mixed with pure brainless moralizing. The film doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot to fill its two-hour runtime and drags a lot in the middle but if you want an amusing example of Hollywood excess gone wrong, then The Book Of Eli may be for you.
The Book Of Eli is rated R for some brutal violence and language
It opens everywhere on January 15, 2009
Directed by the Hughes Brothers; written by Gary Whitta; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Cindy Mollo; original music by Atticus Ross; production designer, Gae Buckley; produced by Joel Silver, Denzel Washington, David Valdes, Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.
With: Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Tom Waits (Engineer), Michael Gambon (George), Frances De La Tour (Martha) and Malcolm McDowell (Lombardi).