by Richard von Busack
This one goes out to the lighthouse keeper in the Pitcairn Islands who never saw a dystopic downer before. We, however, saw a dozen of them last year alone, just never a version apparently produced by the Gideon Society. In the Hughes brothers’ The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington plays the warrior of the wastelands, “30 years after the Big Flash.” He is Eli, armed with a makeshift yet just sword and a significant book.
After slicing and dicing a group of roadside thugs, Eli enters a Western hell town. There, he trades a few words with the postapocalyptic junk-shop proprietor (Tom Waits, in a set that we, his many fans, would love to think is exactly like the inside of Waits’ garage).
Wanting nothing more than a quick refreshment—just like a century’s worth of peaceful cinematic cowpokes before him—Eli saunters into a saloon run by boss Carnegie (Gary Oldman looking like Robert Evans). Carnegie’s life’s work is to find a certain book that will give him the words to rule the wasteland. And the book ain’t The Fountainhead.
The Hugheses try to make The Book of Eli nondenominational by having Eli treat his Bible the way a fundamentalist Muslim treats the Koran, swaddling and kissing it; our hero is also seen wearing a Palestinian scarf. The movie suggests that we could be as people-of-the-book pious as Christianity’s main competitors, but it’ll take a nuclear holocaust to teach us all. Eli easily makes lost girl Solara (Mila Kunis) his Magdalene by teaching her how to say grace over her post-atomic dinner; later, he reads her Psalm 23. If only Eli had gone on to the reams of and “Habakkuk begot Hezekiah” that give the Bible its uniquely bullet-stopping qualities.
The Bible-hunt premise doesn’t have any more thrill than the pre-title sequence, in which Denzel draws a bead on a Mr. Bigglesworth–style cat with bow and arrow. Any pathos in the kill is blown by the CGI freeze frame of the arrow in flight, so we can admire its awesome deadliness. Scriptwriter Gary Whitta, as in the IMDb sentence “Gary Whitta was editor of PC Gamer for several years,” brings nothing new to this death-of-civilization miasma.
And the good old things aren’t honored much either. The exception is a scene with two superior actors, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, as a deranged old pair of survivors with a cracked if intact tea set and the world’s last Anita Ward LP.
In the end, the very arbitrariness of what survives (sunglasses, high-powered ammo, Hummers, lingerie, cicadas, the Transamerica Pyramid) over what doesn’t (common sense, humans’ unique ability to invent and band together) is another reason why it may be time to bury this genre.
The Book of Eli has more sense than The Road when it insists that people who live on a diet of people would start to look rather ill. I loved Max Max once, but after yet another ocher-dyed load of scrapings from Tarkovsky’s dead skull, postapocalyptic adventures are rapidly becoming my least favorite genre, more than even stock-car racing movies and rape-revenge thrillers.
Is it possible that someone could use the background for something else: a romantic comedy, an ensemble piece, perhaps a musical? (Has anyone done Macbeth yet in a wasteland staging?)