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Non-Review Review: The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is an interesting film. It’s undoubtedly well made, featuring a strong cast and a pretty great script. Being honest, we’ve had more than enough death and destruction amid post-apocalyptic wastelands, so a movie that doesn’t dwell too much on the soulless nihilism of the setting – well, relatively speaking. It’s sort of an action movie response to the after-the-end thrillers we’ve been seeing a lot of in recent years (The Road comes to mind, as does Carriers and Hollywood’s current fascination with zombies). However, the movie comes across as a little too polished and stylised for its own good – at times it seems as if the cast are recording a perfume commercial set amid the ruins of a world that once was.

Have we been down this road before?

That’s not to suggest that the film is a shallow experience. After all, the Hughes Brothers were two of the most interesting directors in Hollywood during the nineties. The film is dripping with all sorts of clever imagery and metaphors, such as a tyrant who surrounds himself with the blind (so that they can’t see him for what he is); the relationship between literacy and power; the influence of religion, and its possible abuses. These are all wonderfully potent ideas to package in a Mad Max style action movie.

Take, for example, the characters of George and Martha, who show up in the second half of the film. They live in a white house in the middle of the post-nuclear desert (which looks like a more modest version of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate), cannibalising any random passers-by and cranking out Ring my Bell on their old LP. The fact that they’re played by movie veterans Michael Gambon and Frances de la Torre doesn’t hurt the sense of old-world sophistication underscoring the creepy vibes.

Looking for a sign...

Along the way, the Hughes brothers offer some interesting thoughts on the union of the physical and the spiritual. The nature of the cataclysm which reduced the landscape to a wasteland is kept decidedly ambiguous – there are hints it could have been nuclear holocaust, but also perhaps the divine rapture. The film is remarkably even-handed when it comes to tackling religious faith. The directors acknowledge the power of personal belief as a source of great strength, but also admit that belief can be harnessed for death and destruction.

The central conflict at the heart of the film, as the blind prophet Eli confronts the tyrant Carnegie, is not the traditional divide between rational thought and faith – it’s a contest between two very different types of faith. It’s hinted throughout the film that it was militant belief which led the world to this juncture, and yet it’s a more benign strain of that spirituality which guides our protagonist through the desert. Indeed, if one accepts one interpretation of the film’s ending, it seems that perhaps there was more than faith at play here.

Everything falls apart...

The movie has a strong cast behind it. Denzel Washington is always great to watch, as is Gary Oldman. Both actors do wonderful work with the material. In particular, Washington plays the eponymous Eli with a sense of ambiguity that works quite well given some of the later plot developments. Being honest, I’m still not entirely convinced about the movie’s revelations towards the end – some of them are quite clever and work wonderfully thematically, even if I’m not entirely sure that it makes sense.

However, the movie feels too consciously stylish at times. The Hughes brothers handle the action sequences remarkably well – the stunt work is impressive. However, there’s near-constant use of slow motion and sped-up footage, even during relatively quiet scenes. When Eli’s new female companion discovers just how harsh the outside world is, we’re treated to slo-mo shots of her walking, wearing sunglasses. It doesn’t really give the film a chance to convey just how the characters feel – it all feels too highly polished for its own good.

Are all these post apocalyptic films getting old?

That said, I’m actually kinda lad that the movie mostly veers away from the excessively dark depressive attitudes which define these sorts of post-apocalyptic tale. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a barrel of laughs – but the film doesn’t treat draining its audience of their will to live as an aspiration. It manages to throw out all manner of clever and interesting ideas about the nature of civilisation (and how to rebuild), but without ever getting too heavy for its audience.

The movie does have some minor pacing problems – the first half moves too slow and the second half too fast – but it is a genuinely entertaining slice of post-apocalyptic fiction. I think the Hughes do over-stylise the film, but they’re working with enough good ideas and good actors that it (mostly) balances out. The movie works best when it comes to pure symbolism – the use of Alcatraz, for example, as a fortress when it was once a prison; the “white house” and its residents – and good ideas.

5 Responses

  1. Excellent review. As you said, this is a very well-made movie with good performances overall and a solidly engaging story. I think it was too satisfied with its own sense of stylishness, there were too many slow-mo shots of Denzel Washington simply walking or Mila Kunis as you pointed out in your post. And the fact he is revealed to be blind at the end seems like a cop-out especially given the fact that it’s never explained at all how he could do all the things he did throughout the movie.

  2. I had a hard time with this one. Yes, it’s satisfactorily badass, it has great action scenes, seeing Denzel beat people up and act grim is always fun, and Tom Waits is in it. And the acting on the whole is pretty good. And so’s the world-building. But oh my, is this ever a bloated film crying out for a judicious editing session. The pace on this one, and the sheer quantity of excess, makes what should be a gritty, dark, and bloody good time at the cinema kind of a slog. Could have been a superior movie with a better sense of timing and if it moved more fluidly.

    • Yep. i thought the first half was too slow and the second half was too fast. Maybe it could have been sliced to make it “just right”.

  3. The end was…interesting.

    Spot on about the visual style.

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