Among post-apocalyptic flicks, Book of Eli is among the better ones, though it’s not nearly as good as the emotionally gripping The Road. (Both movies share certain features: bleak landscapes, food scarcity, cannibalism, and roving gangs.)
Cinematically, the absolute best part of the film is Gary Oldman’s chillingly gripping portrayal of the villain (with shades of Jack Nicholson), though I also quite liked Denzel Washington’s performance as the lead (Eli). Some of the landscapes obviously were digitized, which pulled me out of the story a bit.
Don’t read any more of this review if you don’t want to know about the story.
The upshot is that God tells Eli to travel West (across the U.S.) in order to protect the last copy of the Bible in existence. That premise, of course, is ridiculously stupid for two reasons. First, there have been so many copies of the Bible printed up (and saved digitally) that there is no way that even a concerted effort to destroy every Bible could possibly come close to succeeding. Second, the idea that God would tell this guy to go West with the last Bible is silly. (And why God would choose to save the stilted King James version remains a mystery, given the existence of better and more accurate versions.)
The main theme the film promotes is religious faith. Eli travels West because he literally hears the voice of God tell him to do so. Moreover, God tells him He will protect Eli over the course of the journey. It turns out that God was directing Eli to a sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco where a team of librarians eagerly await the arrival of the Bible so that they can put it to the printing press. Outlandishly silly stuff.
The failed theme of the film is altruism. At one point Eli summarizes the theme of the Bible: “Do more for others than you do for yourself.” But he does quite a lot of stuff for himself. For one thing, he brutally slaughters dozens of men who happen to get in the way of his mission. There’s no “turning the other cheek” for this God; this is more Old Testament bloodshed.
At one point Eli puts himself and his mission in danger by getting his iPod charged up while he seeks water in an obviously troublesome bar. (Why didn’t God just direct him to strike a rock with a stick or something?) True, Eli rescues his new friend, but he’s obviously lonely and enjoys the companionship. So, while Eli explicitly preaches altruism, he doesn’t exhibit much of it. Perhaps his journey as a whole, to save the Bible, can be viewed as an act of altruism, but in that world his journey seems as safe and personally fulfilling as any other.
It is interesting that Eli formulates altruism as a balancing act; you’re supposed to do something for yourself, but you’re supposed to do more for others. This recognizes that altruism cannot be consistently followed; you’d quickly die if you never tended to your own needs. (Of course the alternative to such moral pragmatism is a consistent, rational and benevolent egoism as promoted by Ayn Rand.)
Thankfully, the film also delves into a much more interesting tertiary theme: the reliance of tyrants on religious dogmas. The reason the Bible was nearly destroyed, says Eli, is that many blamed it for the war that destroyed the planet. The main villain seeks the Bible because he wants to use its text to subdue the people he rules. Now that is interesting commentary. Of course, the message of Eli is that such treatment of the Bible is misuse of it (and God keeps the text out of the villain’s hands), but, in fact, the Bible has been used for thousands of year to justify tyranny and oppression. (It has also been used to justify better causes, which demonstrates only that people can read into religious texts pretty much whatever they want. That is the ultimate nature of faith.)
I also appreciated the fact that the movie’s heroes devote their efforts to saving books. The Bible features some great stories and literature — and it offers poignant lessons about the nature of religion — and it would indeed be a tragedy to lose it. So here’s to post-apocalyptical films that celebrate literacy!