I have said before that the biggest mistake a movie can make is to tell its audience exactly what to think. It is far better to give them something to think about and cause discussion amongst the population. The Book of Eli does not make this mistake. What it does do is something just as odd and far more common; it tries to spread itself to thin with its ideas. Basically, the film does not know what it wants to accomplish, so it tries to accomplish everything. When the themes of the film are as lofty as organized religion and the printed word, well, it is easy to see why it feels the Hughes Brothers bit off a little more than they can chew.
This is especially odd because so many of the basics are done to a degree I rarely see. I was intrigued, entertained, and ultimately pleased with the film, but I was also unsatisfied.
The film follows the adventures of Eli, who is attempting to reach the western U.S. with a copy of the King James Bible (King James? The Incomplete One?) Of course, it is a post apocalyptic film; so such a trek will not be easy. During the trip, he comes to a town ruled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who keeps the citizens living in fear, including the blind Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter Solera (Mila Kunis). Carnegie also wants a copy of the bible to use as a weapon and attract more people to his settlements. Eli must fight Carnegie and try to accomplish his goal.
I will tell you what the film reminds me of, and that’s the video game Fallout 3. That is not meant to be a detraction; far from it. Like the game, the film is wonderful in the way it creates its post apocalyptic world. The film is dark, stylized, and highly detailed in a way that definitely deserves comparison to The Road Warrior (which all such films are trying to be). Washington portrays Eli as he is meant to be; a man who is smart enough to realize how to survive his ordeal. He never tries to explain himself to anyone. Solera is not portrayed as naive, and Carnegie, although evil, is not just being villainous for the sake of it. Everyone in this universe seems to understand their roles. In fact, the people never try to explain what happened to the world (why discuss what would be common knowledge?) and appear unfamiliar with items from the past (one character incredulously asks what a television set is at the climax). The film has certainly taken a few pointers from the films of John Ford and the works of James Feinmore Cooper. The film is an old adventure yarn, filled with clearly defined bad guys and the loner hero that John Wayne spent his career portraying. It is a fantastic set up, and everything on this level worked.
So, it does what a Sci-Fi Western should do; give audiences a new world, wonderfully defined characters, and some thrilling fight sequences that create the Clawed Hand Syndrome (when you are so excited that your hand grips onto the arm rest of wherever you are seated so as to resemble a claw). But then the films tries to inject a healthy amount of social commentary on the audience. The film fails here, mainly because I am not sure what it was trying to say. The fact that the film used a Bible may very well have been a mistake; it just opens up too many doors. Carnegie says that he wants to use the Bible as a weapon. Fine, so the film starts out as a commentary on organized religion and on the Protestant Revolution. But then it shifts gears, becoming more about Eli’s redemption – even though he was not a character that needed redeeming. Then it becomes a parable for the invention of the printing press. Then it ends with a sort of Twilight Zone style twist that means that the film is not about redemption, but about hubris. Also, two characters named George and Martha are introduced living a simple far life, indicating that the good life is some sort of colonial life, but that does not have a payoff.
See what I mean? The movie and its messages are so convoluted that I needed a spreadsheet just to keep track of them all. It would have been better to make this film about, say, the printed word. Far funnier would have been to have Eli protecting a meaningless book (like, say, a book by Stephen King or some dime western novel), showing how much such things will be valued. If it was to be about organized religion, then Carnegie would have needed to be a more public figure. The twist (which occurs in private) would have needed to occur in public. George and Martha would have needed to stick around longer if that is the route the filmmakers wanted to take.
Look at me dreaming. The film COULD have addressed all of these items in the ways I described above. But it does not. It is like a child who is scared to get into the pool, so only keeps sticking his toe in the shallow end. I know that sounds like an enormous complaint, but of course we know that merely sticking toes into shallow ends is probably not the only thing that child can do. He or she can be the best artist in the class, and that is what he should brag about and use to his advantage. That same child who brags about how he is a swimmer is in for a real disappointment.
As a B-movie, the film is an A+. But it does not want to be a B-movie and suffers as a consequence.