Accordingly, the film is set mostly outdoors against a backdrop of Big Sky, and particularly lovely to look at. One rousing action scene late in the proceedings is positively brimming with visual invention, and proves a real highlight.
In broad terms, the overall production design, the character blocking, the iconic positioning of Eli in the frame, and other visual facets of the drama are truly exemplary, and therefore well worth lauding.
Yet ultimately I feel somewhat conflicted about the film. In emotional, purely human terms, The Book of Eli plays as markedly flat compared to the harrowing The Road (2009), for instance. And most importantly, the deep religious message it conveys is not handled in an appropriately inspiring or nuanced manner.
The Book of Eli is set thirty winters after an unnamed apocalypse in which the sky opens up and burns to a cinder most of the human population. The surviving populations of the world blame this global catastrophe on the Bible (but not the Koran, and not the Talmud, apparently...). Thus all copies of the Bible -- everywhere -- are burned.
Three decades after this terrifying day of disaster, a humble "walker," Eli (Denzel Washington) makes a dangerous pilgrimage West carrying what may be the planet's final Bible in his satchel.
The book in his possession soon lands Eli in direct conflict with a small-time tyrant named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who believes that ownership of the valuable tome will permit him to control and dominate an unruly population. Eli also befriends a young, impressionable slave, Solara (Mila Kunis), who takes up the book's learning with Eli. There is a final battle between Eli and Carnegie for possession of the Bible, and the end of the trek occurs at a sort of book repository/monastery on Alcatraz.
There are many truly fine elements at work here. The action sequence I mentioned above is a real humdinger. It finds Eli and Solara hiding in an isolated house in a western desert as Carnegie and his goons attack, utilizing superior firepower. The camera lunges back and forth between Eli's position and Carnegie's position, but eschews all conventional film cutting. Instead, (under the auspices of some amazing CGI...) we travel "through" bullet holes, race along the battlefield floor, pivot suddenly and zoom in the other direction, sometimes even through carnage and fiery debris. This is a dazzling and fresh way of visualizing a gunfight, and it's fluid, fun and exciting.
Eli may possess a name, but like his Spaghetti Western predecessor, he boasts a personal code in a mostly immoral terrain... and is a highly-skilled fighter, proficient, in particular, with a sword.
Remember in Yojimbo how Mifune's ronin chopped off the arm of an opponent with his sword? Early on, The Book of Eli presents a similarly violent sequence.
And like The Man with No Name, Eli is a fellow who brooks no nonsense from anyone, and is a loner, an outsider in the culture around him. He ignores or skirts reigning authority, and again like Eastwood's character, seems to be more than a mere mortal. Just as The Man with No Name survived hanging (twice...), so does Eli seem to endure and survive extreme physical challenges (like gunfights and a battle with a chainsaw-wielding opponent). Although Eli is joined by Solara, he gets no substantive help from the community he ultimately helps.
So clearly, Eli is a heroic archetype, one perfectly in keeping with the Western and Samurai/ronin traditions he arises from. To accentuate this important connection to cinematic heroes of the past, the Hughes Brothers frequently shoot Denzel Washington from below, or in iconic silhouette to accentuate his power, virtue and strength. A variation on this idea involves a focus on the eyes. When you think of Leone's pictures, one of the first images that leaps to mind is a close-up of Eastwood's steely, penetrating orbs. In purposeful contrast, Washington's eyes are shielded almost constantly by opaque sun-glasses, to make way for a final act surprise twist. But the sub-text of the warrior's sight is part and parcel of both "The Man with No Name films" and The Book of Eli.
Post-apocalyptic films have re-purposed Westerns before (The Road Warrior was Shane, wasn't it?) and The Book of Eli picks a very good, very efficacious model to emulate in these classic Italian genre films. This Hughes Bros. movie also seems to acknowledge its myriad post-apocalyptic genre roots, especially with the prominence in one frame of a poster from the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog.
I also noted some real similarities between The Book of Eli and the 1936 H.G. Wells' penned film Things to Come, particularly the section of that classic movie involving "Everytown" in 1966-1967, post-apocalypse. In that middle-portion of Things to Come, Ralph Richardson's petty tyrant "The Boss" dominated a local population as a Dark Age for humanity loomed, and he even had a female squeeze at his side. Oldman and Jennifer Beals play similar roles here, in a comparable setting and situation.
Interestingly, however, ideology has changed dramatically from Things to Come in 1936 to The Book of Eli in 2010. In Things to Come, John Massey arrived from a pacifist socialist organization "Wings over the World," which almost literally forced a global government and New World Order on Richardson's tyrant and his warring people. Eli, by contrast, is a kind of fundamentalist missionary re-asserting the tenets of Christianity in a world where morality has largely vanished.
Another commendable element of The Book of Eli involves a useful, real-life historical analogy: the book-preserving souls on Alcatraz led by Malcolm McDowell are highly reminiscent of the Irish Monks, who, in the Dark Ages, took it upon themselves to preserve the literary treasures of Antiquity. Without their tireless and truly amazing efforts, much of humanity's greatest works would have been lost to the barbarism of the day. In The Book of Eli, another Dark Ages is broached, and the same thing occurs: human ingenuity is championed. Encoded here, then, is a worthwhile message about literature and books: that they hold the legacy and promise of the human race.
Even the broad religious message of The Book of Eli I found eminently worthwhile. Simply put, the movie states that some people view religious belief as a method of control (Carnegie) and some see it as an authentic road to salvation and redemption (Eli). I appreciated the even-handedness of such a take; the yin-and-yang of the approach.
But then...there's this other aspect of the film that I found just didn't quite work for me. And yes, it involves Eli and the overtly religious aspect of his heroic quest. In crafting an interesting variation of "The Man with No Name" character, the makers of the film have gone too far for my taste. They've made Eli, actually, superhuman.
One of the most jarring and incongruous aspects of The Book of Eli is the style of fighting adopted by Eli during the frequent clashes. This is a malnourished, tired, ragged character adorned in layers of ratty clothes...and yet he moves at super-human speeds, as though a well-fed, highly-trained, agile martial artist. There's another handicap at work too that would seem to preclude such precise fighting movements. I get what the movie is trying to do; to offer a Christian version of Eastwood's character, but Eli is very clearly God-Powered.
He's a Holy Warrior whose very quest is blessed by the attention of the Almighty Himself. At one point, he recounts a story that God spoke to him directly as a child, and instructed him to take the Bible out west.
Helpfully, God has thus made Eli virtually invulnerable in his ability to evade bullets, and fulfill his holy purpose. In one shoot-out set on a busy city street (another sequence taken right from the Western genre...), a half-dozen or so men open fire on Eli with blazing pistols. He is so confident in his continued survival that he does not even take cover. He just walks away in the middle of the wide open avenue, his back to the bad guys, as they shoot at him. And, he survives, without a scratch.
Even Eli's enemies perceive that he is, well, specially...endowed. One of Carnegie's minions states, in hushed tones: "It's like he's protected somehow. Like nothing can touch him."
Too often, alas, that's the level of nuance and subtlety at work. The ambiguity of the "Man with No Names" films is sacrificed for this modification in the format, and I submit it's a near-fatal subtraction from the formula.
I should specify. As intelligent and yes, even spiritual viewers, we are not asked by The Book of Eli to contemplate the notion that God could be guiding this battle, or Eli's very destiny. Rather we are told, in no uncertain terms, and in fight after fight, sequence after sequence, that the Almighty has got Eli's back. And I feel very strongly that this takes much of the suspense and intrigue out of the film.
Put another way, it's the difference between believing God exists and is possibly affecting outcomes and destinies, and the definitive knowledge that God is, well, perched on the third cloud from the right, micromanaging our affairs with a cosmic blackberry. What I'm saying is that God is a mystery (even the Greatest of All Mysteries...) but this movie negates that mystery, spoon-feeding the audience easy answers. Not only is Eli righteous, he is literally on a misson from God, to quote The Blues Brothers.
We have no such certainty about the Divine in life, so why make God's presence and agenda so certain, so uninspiring in the movie? I mean, that's what faith is all about, isn't it? The belief that God is present even though we can't get text him, message him or e-mail him, right? If God is constantly our dutiful co-pilot, as is suggested in the film, then faith is actually moot. Who needs belief and faith when bullets can't touch you?
But here's the considerable problem the movie's approach opens up: if God can deliver messages directly to Eli, and render Eli virtually impervious to all but point-blank bullet wounds, he can surely just materialize the Bible on Alcatraz, right? Or, God could have prevented all the Bibles from being burned in the first place if he disapproved of that particular outcome.
In fact, the "history of the world" as depicted in The Book of Eli is baffling and contradictory. There's a global disaster, and we're led to believe that every surviving American -- even those living in the Bible Belt, burned their Bibles in response. There must be hundreds of millions of such Bibles in this country...and all but one of 'em get torched. Yet, as I noted above, the Koran and the Talmud both survive.
We can extrapolate from this oddity in the story that the survivors don't blame a "God" figure for their suffering, but specifically, a Christian God. Why else take it out on the Bible, and not the other religious books? And see, this nugget of information leads to even more problems. If everyone in the post-apocalyptic future has so thoroughly rejected the Bible, how is brandishing one going to grant the despotic Carnegie total control over his citizens?
Now, the people of this future era may be young and naive and living in a world without books, but it was their parents who burned the Bibles, so wouldn't they have at least some knowledge of it? If, as a parent, you deemed Christianity and the Bible responsible for the wholesale destruction of the Earth, so much so that you had to go on a book-burning tear, wouldn't you also, you know, tell your children: beware, these beliefs destroyed the planet?
On another tangent, if every Bible on the Earth were indeed burned, wasn't this God's plan too? And if Christianity really was the cause of the destruction of the planet, why would Eli want to re-introduce the very thing that hundreds of millions of people -- even in the Bible Belt, even devout Christians -- massively assessed responsible for the destruction of the planet?
In short, The Book of Eli wants to be a movie about how the world needs more Christianity in it. Yet by the movie's own storytelling details, Christianity is apparently what destroyed the world in the first place. There's a whopping narrative contradiction there. This is weak writing.
Scrape the surface of The Book of Eli and you detect how the narrative details don't make a lick of common sense. A spiritual movie is wonderful, but I would submit that a spiritual movie must work even harder to tell its story in a fashion that conforms to the tenets of our consensus reality. God doesn't erect actual protective force fields around those he loves, does he? We experience the Divine (if we see the Divine at all) in the little human truths, in an unexpected moment of grace, in the innocence and love of children, etc. That's an approach I would have preferred; one with a sense of nuance and subtlety.
But The Book of Eli's approach to religion is unnecessarily broad, and too unambiguous. The movie wants to be about the mystery of faith, but it is so obvious, so callow, so crushing in its depiction of the world, that it actually obliterates the necessity of faith.
This would have been a far stronger (and much more inspiring...) film if it had concerned a man struggling with, and ultimately re-affirming his faith. As it is, the movie is about a man with rock solid certainty that God has spoken to him directly, and who is never challenged in that belief. Eli begins and ends the movie as a Holy Warrior. He doesn't grow, he doesn't change.
It's a creative and imaginative idea to make the archetypal Man with No Name a religious crusader. I just wish The Book of Eli had tread more deeply into the mysteries and profundity of belief and faith instead of presenting certainties that we, as humans, just don't receive on this troubled, mortal coil. It takes the fun out of an action film to know that God is intervening on one side, and that the result of a war is already decided.
Eli's book is never opened to us, the audience. It's slammed shut before we get to read the first page for ourselves.
But golly, the cover is terrific.