Sunday, August 01, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Book of Eli (2010)

The Book of Eli (2010) is a post-apocalyptic action movie from the visual and thematic tradition of the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood as "The Man with No Name."

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.

I
n 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.

As a film buff, I also appreciated the plethora of touches here that appear purposefully reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" feature films (which in turn, I suppose, are purposefully reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo).

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.

11 comments:

  1. Grayson4:29 PM

    A visually beautiful film that does contain flaws. For some reason before I went to see this I thought it was originally a graphic novel, but apparently it isn't.

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  2. Grayson,

    That's funny, I had the same thought. When I was researching the film before this post, I had the impression it was based on a novel, or a graphic novel. Apparently it is not.

    I agree with your assessment. The movie is visually beautiful, but flat, and not as nuanced as it should be, given the spiritual subject matter. At least that's my take.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Hi JKM;

    As usual, your review is the first to make me actually want to see what I'd heard was a very flawed movie (though the same was said about From Hell, a near-classic IMHO). Your comparison with Leone's films put me in mind of a review of Once Upon The Time in the West in one of Danny Peary's Cult Movies books, which added to my appreciation of Leone's films immensely and is an interpretation that allows them to be seen as skirting the realm of the Fantastic, genre-wise. In his (or the article's author's) view, the Leone Westerns are directly allegorical films depicting conflicts between superhuman embodiments of "Good" and "Evil"; Angels or Gods, one could say, but in the Old, Roman sense, incarnated in the form of Man (the brutal punishments inflicted on "The Good" Eastwood lend credence to this theory). Like Renaissance angels they are pure, savage, and obey clear but often puzzling moral codes; they also wield mystical weapons (like Eastwood's gun that can shoot through a hangman's rope from what looks like a mile away, over and over again) and are virtually impossible to kill (though they can be hurt) - except by one another. The key to this interpretation lies in the "Ugly" - Eli Wallach, Jason Robards - who seem to be the equivalent of mythic Heroes; part-God, quasi-Angelic but very mortal, very human - sometimes sqaulid, sometimes noble - Odysseus-like tricksters and pirates. It's a fun interpretation, and does seem to describe a tonal element in Leone's work that is not present in his direct influences (Johnny Guitar, for example, or the Kurosawa "Easterns") or the work of his peers (a myriad of spaghetti westerns share his style, but lack this touch of the mystical, even when they're trying - such as in clearly Fantastical westerns like Keoma or Django the Bastard.

    So, based on this, it seems like the Book of Eli might be very true to Leone's themes but commit the cardinal (or is that ordinal?) sin of diluting their power by making them too manifest, too specific.

    Now I HAVE to see it.

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  4. Another of your fine film examinations, John. I thoroughly agree with your analysis of this one. The Hughes Brothers created one visually stunning film (with an abundance of hero iconography and framing). Even the color palette plays to this. I really appreciated your comparing it with the Man With No Name westerns, too. I also enjoyed Denzel in the piece and thought he played it earnestly.

    But, I felt the directors got way too heavy handed in its (Christian) theology (as you expressed so well in the review). Your points about the contradictory nature of the story are valid. Yet, the clashing of its details (and lack of common sense) does lend itself to what the church wants its followers to take on faith, now isn't it? I found it strangely consistent with those sets of beliefs. Perhaps, the filmmakers sought this. For some, especially in the apocalyptic setting of the story, this gives people some comparative solace (since it's largely framed against the current economic reality).

    I don't know. There are some films where the act of faith works very well in their narrative. Not here. IMO, it took away from the story. Didn't the character MacReady say in THE THING (paraphrasing), "Faith is a little hard to come by."? It's great to watch, though. I can't help but remember a quote by the late comedian George Carlin's when talking about religion:

    "I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood."

    Ultimately, I think this film would have benefited with a little more mystery in its storytelling, and a a lot less help from the Almighty (ballistics be damned). I very much enjoyed reading the review, John. Thanks for this.

    p.s., just don't let my wife know I quoted Carlin ;-).

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  5. DLR: Wow. Well said, my friend. Your comment captured the matter perfectly. There's a tremendous amount of the Leone aesthetic here in the Hughes Bros. work (And I too think that From Hell is amazing....).

    But, perhaps because this is a big budget American film, playing to a different audience today, matters that should be left ambiguous or otherwise cloudy are directly-stated...and that sort of ruins the effect, at least for me.

    I wanted to throw up my hands in surrender when the minions started noting aloud how Eli can't be touched (cuz he's God-powered). I think the Angel/Devil aspect of Leone's work could have been captured purely with visuals (the way Leone did it) and we didn't need the over-the-top religious push.

    The film got very close to achieving something special, but then went in a route too obvious. I respect the Hughes Bros. and their work and just have to believe that this was forced on them. Some modest re-editing (and a few dialogue deletions) would bring this right in line with Leone's aesthetic, in my opinion.

    Le0pard13:

    I couldn't agree more with your insightful comment.

    The religious stuff is too heavy-handed and obvious for my taste, when the movie would seem more inspirational with less of that material. That's where the movie fits into the strange world of today, what some people differentiate as "Christianist" as opposed to Christian.

    I felt the contradictions here were almost Christianist in their absurdity; that we were supposed to get the contradictory idea that all Christians are persecuted and despised in America (hence the burning of the Bible), and that their beliefs would bring peace and restore order to the World. It's a little paranoid and irrational, but it does fit the climate today. The movie also doesn't address the fact that when people claim they hear God's voice directly, people really suffer. In real life, the wrong country got invaded! Yet Eli's belief is taken as concrete reality here...and that was just too uncritical for me, given what we've seen in the last ten years. In real life, we know when someone thinks that God is speaking directly in their ear, they are deluded...and likely dangerous. God -- if there is one -- would comment in more indirect, less ideological fashion.

    But good grief, the imagery here is beautiful, and the Leone-esque touches are pretty dedicated and amazing. Which is why I feel so conflicted about the movie, I suppose!

    I'm glad you quoted Carlin. I love the guy, and miss hearing his viewpoint on current affairs.

    Thanks for the comments, my friends. It's always good to hear from both of you.

    best,
    JKM

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  6. I have not seen this one yet but I read a review that said the film had some pretty dodgy logic and cited an example of Denzel's character attempting to recharge his iPod and how that would be pretty impossible in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with limited resources...

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  7. J.D.: Dodgy logic -- that's a damn fine way of putting it, my friend. The history of the world, as described in dialogue makes no sense. The I-Pod thing seemed strange as well! A world like this -- a post-apocalyptic world -- needs to be constructed carefully and consistently, and that's where the movie collapses.

    thanks for the comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  8. I had a bit of insomnia and was going to post last night, but then managed to get to sleep anyway. Of course, you guys managed to steal some of my points. :) I haven't watched the movie yet, so I'm stuck speaking in more general terms, but I don't think I'm too off the mark.

    As a conservative Christian, I've been very disappointed in most of the "in your face Christian" movies. The storytelling just is too ham-handed. It's not a Christian story unless the story is heavy, and that's just wrong. I have grown disappointed in Passion of the Christ for that; when Gibson adds to the Bible's story, the weight is oppressive IMHO.

    The sad part about it is that there's room to work in Eli. One of the ways to "disprove Christianity" would be to destroy all copies of the Bible. Having a post-Apocalyptic America where a few Christians cling to faith, hoping for that last copy existing out there somewhere, would make for interesting tension. Make it to where the evil guy wants the last copy to burn it in their faces, to extinguish their last resistance against him.

    Make Eli more like Gideon, who when spoken to asks God to prove it, and He does. Make Eli someone who has heard the storm and the earthquake, but found God in the whispers instead. Heck, his namesake Elijah bested 400 prophets and then outran Ahab's chariot, but then hours later was so burned out that he needed a sabbatical at Mount Sinai. He reaches the town just at his lowest, and has to recover.

    "In real life, we know when someone thinks that God is speaking directly in their ear, they are deluded...and likely dangerous." I guess I'm more ambiguous on this. I've known people who claimed to be God, because their medicine was out of whack. And I've known a woman who was wheelchair bound, with permanent nerve damage (nerves in her legs were non-functional, couldn't even be stimulated electrically). One day at home, God told her to walk to her husband's home office, and she did. (She was on high heels walking within a week.) Eli could be one of the latter, but if he is he has to be human, not Superman.

    Show me 90%, and leave me to make up the other 10%. Don't show me 200% and beat it into my head.

    (If JKM can tolerate just a moment of off-topic, I want to comment on le0pard13's quote of Carlin, "I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood." The crucifixion symbolism was even more degrading then, and yet still intentional.)

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  9. Kentucky Packrat:

    I'm glad you wrote a comment on this subject. I've enjoyed your insights and viewpoint on religious-themed movies before, remembering your leanings as a Christian Conservative.

    Your viewpoint is always welcome here.

    And I agree with you that a movie that studied the mystery of faith in a world without the Bible would have been a more interesting one than what we ultimately get in Book of Eli.

    We also agree that it's the heavy-handedness that is the problem, not the existence of religious subtext.

    You know I'm an atheist, but I generally don't have a problem with religious-themed movies if they don't try to clobber me with the ideas in them. I am a doubter, but a good, nuanced movie about spirituality always inspires me to consider what I believe (or don't believe).

    I could have been more nuanced myself in the comment about God speaking directly into people's ears. I just find it suspicious, I should have said, when it seems to happen in people of positions of authority and power, who use that term...that God spoke to them directly. To me, that's contrived, and likely a lie (an excuse for an ideological crusade).

    Anyway, thanks for writing. It's nice to hear from you again.

    All my best,
    John

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  10. Hi John

    Browsing your site because it's getting close to Howards best of 2010 movie show and I'm trying to go over the films I've seen...and the films I really should see before next week.

    Eli is probably on my top list but mainly because It's been such a weak year for genre films IMO. I remember buying the premise of ELI pretty well and the entire story was very immersive for me (I am an Atheist).

    I bought the concept of the burning bibles because armeggeddon came without any rapture or second coming. Hence the Bible belt survivors really had nothing left unless there was a Job out there amoungst them.

    I'd love to see what your top five genre films of 2010 are. I'm still working my list but it would be neat to see where we intersect.

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  11. Hi Phil,

    Great comment! It was a weaker year, I think, for genre films, than the past few. I remember Eli as a flawed but interesting film. I'm also an atheist...

    Anyway, I should think about a list of best/worst for 2010....

    Great to hear from you, my friend. I hope you are well.

    Warmest wishes, and happy new year!

    JKM

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