As movie premises go, it's hard to top a post-apocalyptic action movie. Every scene and setpiece is a perfect empty canvas for a lunatic art department to create a frightening, barely recognizable vision of our world, to tell a story with burnt-out rubble of how humanity destroyed itself, as we all know will happen some day. True, many of these movies peak in their first few minutes, and slide downhill as our hero discovers the rest of feral humanity, kills most of them, and it turns into a generic action movie. (That's what happened in I Am Legend, rating: 70.) Even when they fail to live up to their initial promise, though, those first few moments alone usually deliver much more than a standard action flick. In a way, The Book of Eli is sunk by its ambition: it's a genre movie with religious pretensions, but it loses its way in the murky waters of religion.
Denzel Washington plays Eli, a seemingly invincible warrior in possession of a sharp sword and the last Bible on earth, on a mission West to deliver and disseminate it widely. Quite a few people seek to take advantage of him on his way, but he's able to kill them all quite easily. Then he runs into Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, a small-time strongman who wants to use the book to manipulate people to worship him. Both Eli and Carnegie seem to believe that without the book, there can be no faith -- either to manipulate or to worship -- which is hard to swallow. Also, Denzel's an awfully bloody killer for a man who believes that he is protected by God. (If he thinks his enemies can't kill him, what's the harm in turning the other cheek?) Oldman and Washington's confrontation is enjoyable, because they're good actors, but it feels forced.
Religion and apocalypse are inevitably linked -- it takes Godlike power to destroy the world, and in any such situation, the ignorant few scavengers left behind would invariably form their own religion. Walter Miller's classic postapocalyptic sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (rating: 90) is a beautiful, serious exploration of the formation and reformation of human faith amid the obliteration of collective memory; in its own way, so is Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (rating: 92. In both books, inchoate organized religions form out of fear and desire to believe. In The Book of Eli, despite the passage of 30 years since the nuclear holocaust, religion has vanished from the world, along with literacy and almost all other vestiges of the old world. (We are told that immediately after the nuclear war, religion was blamed for everything, and all other copies of the Bible were burned in retaliation.) But in light of the sci-fi tradition, a total absence of religion after the war seems hard to believe.
Of course, there's a dusty beauty to the wastelands of the road, and the cast does as well as it can. Denzel Washington is a reliable lead, particularly in his asskicking action scenes; Oldman is an enjoyably vicious villain; and Mila Kunis is decent in the thankless task of being the girl who tags along. But it's the supporting actors who really shine. Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits, Michael Gambon, and Michael McDowell all add a touch of class to the proceedings. (Waits is really having quite a year, fresh off his turn as the Devil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Is McDowell is kind of making a cottage industry out of cameos in postapocalyptic action movies, having appeared in Doomsday, rating: 80, in a similar role as an old coot who managed to survive the end of the world in a fortress that our hero discovers late in the film.)
Like many of its genre brethren, The Book of Eli isn't as good as it could be, and its missed opportunities are frustrating, which may be one reason the studio dumped it in the middle of January. Next to the lovely scenery (courtesy of the directors, the Hughes Brothers), and the first rate cast, the weak link may be first-time screenwriter Gary Whitta, former editor of PC Gamer magazine. It's not a terrible movie. It's just not terribly good.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.