The 23rd Psalm of the Bible, in case you haven’t memorized the entire Old Testament, goes like this: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…
The 23rd Psalm is also the inspiration for the dark, moody film The Book of Eli, and though it takes quite a while to move beyond its Mad Max roots and get into the main storyline, it is ultimately a dark, modern religious parable.
Denzel Washington is the main character, Eli, and he’s spent thirty years slowly walking through a vast American wasteland, carrying the precious Book of Eli, a mysterious leather-clad tome that he dutifully reads every day and hides from anyone else who might see it. He walks into a cliché post-apocalyptic bar full of ruffians owned by scroungy tough guy Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has spent years questing for The Book. And so begins the battle of good and evil that is at the heart of the film.
The premise is interesting and as a parable, a story told in broad sweeping strokes, The Book of Eli is reasonably satisfying, but it’s also deeply flawed with poor pacing, unceasingly gloomy cinematography and surprisingly poor acting on the part of just about everyone in the cast. It’s the cinematographic equivalent of hard Christian rock, awkwardly balanced between the religious message and the desire to be an aggressive post-apocalyptic film. It doesn’t quite succeed on either front.
I don’t know whether it’s a sign of our modern angst-filled era, but there have been a remarkable chain of post-Apocalyptic films in the last few years, from The Road to Terminator: Salvation. The Book of Eli joins the list and at times I was sure I was seeing the same destroyed urban and suburban exteriors that we’ve already seen on screen in these other films. Is the end of the world really that fascinating a premise?
The film starts out misleading us, intimating that a massive nuclear explosion has just taken place and slowly panning through a gloomy grey forest covered in the ash that slowly falls from the heavens. Suddenly one of the bodies moves, shoots an animal, and bags it: Eli has captured his dinner. In this first scene he’s wearing a gas mask, which shortly changes to a black-and-white Keffiyeh covering his lower face, to just wearing dark shades. My interpretation was that it represented time passing and the world clearing from the radiation and stench of post-bomb decay, but as with many nuances in the film, it didn’t have any deeper meaning, and it didn’t represent any sort of time passing.
Eli (Denzel Washington) and Solara (Mila Kunis) trek through the wasteland
As Eli travels his slow and deliberate journey through the wasteland, he encounters the typical low-life types you’d expect in a Mad Max-esque film, including a gang of hijackers who try to jump him but find he’s more than a match for the five of them, with his machete-like sword able to neatly parry even a chainsaw-wielding thug. As with subsequent fight scenes, this is very well choreographed, exciting, and rather fast: it’s not many seconds before they’re all down and he’s putting his blade away, without having broken a sweat or had any emotions at all.
When he arrives in the city run by Carnegie (Oldman), he goes directly to an inventor and merchant, seeking to have his portable battery unit recharged (he listens to a second generation iPod, and the one time we hear the music he’s listening to, it’s a cover of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart). The merchant pulls a gun on him, but after checking that his hands aren’t shaking, determines that Eli isn’t “one of them”. Later, we learn that “them” are cannibals and in the thirty years since the war, that’s how many people have managed to survive. Fortunately, that’s only hinted at in passing, though it certainly could have been more integral to the story.
In the worst story twist in the movie, while a captor of Carnegie’s, Eli has lovely Solara (Mila Kunis) visit to offer him, well, she’s an attractive young woman and it’s a rough post-apocalyptic setting, you can guess the rest of this sentence. He refuses, but she stays with him anyway, and before the eat the food he’s been given, he says grace. She’s never experienced such a thing and is fascinated, so much so that the next morning, when she’s then having breakfast with Carnegie’s girlfriend (and her mother) Claudia (Jennifer Beals), she takes her mother’s hands and says grace over their food. Even with the massive amount of suspension of disbelief required for a film of this nature, this narrative device was ludicrous and disappointing.
She escapes and joins Eli on his continued journey West, while Carnegie learns of The Book that Eli is carrying and tries time and again to get the book. Ultimately, he does, but by that point in the film you understand the logic of the underlying story and know that things aren’t what they seem.
While the cinematography was grey and depressing, the film itself was well constructed. The music was properly — and endlessly — tense and gloomy, and everything looked and felt, well, like we imagine it would decades after The Big One in a society that hasn’t been able to advance beyond the crudest of civilizations. The acting, though, that was really one of the weakest points in the film and many times I just looked at the screen in astonishment at just how badly the actors were reciting their lines. From Kunis to Beals, Washington to Oldman, there wasn’t a single actor in this film who seemed to be in the film. It hurt the movie almost as much as the poor story.
I liked certain elements of The Book of Eli, and I’m generally quite a fan of the acting troop, notably Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis, but none of them gave a strong performance in this throwaway post-apocalyptic religious parable. If you’re interested in a film based on the 23rd Psalm and don’t mind some explicit, violent scenes, then this could be a good film for you. If I were involved in a 10th-12th grade bible study group, for example, this could be a great field trip. But if you’re looking for a satisfying cinematic experience, I think you can skip this one.