24 January 2011

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a science fiction film of the post apocalyptic quest type directed by the Hughes brothers (of Menace II Society fame) and released in 2010.

The film sees Eli (played by Denzel Washington) journey by foot across America towards San Francisco with what is believed to be the last remaining copy of the Bible. His main adversary is Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who is determined to obtain a copy of the Bible in order to use it for political control.

The film made nearly double it's budget in gross revenues and was popular amongst the cinema going public, nearly 80% of people rated the film A or B at Box Office Mojo. It was less popular with critics who took exception to the post apocalyptic setting and the religious content. Less than half of the "professional" critics gave the film a positive review according to Rotten Tomatoes.

For me the film was a success. The cinematography was monumentally bleak. The fight scenes were exceptional thanks to Jeff Imada's choreography and Denzel Washington’s extensive training in the Filipino martial art of Kali. There were several really funny moments including the beginning of the first fight scene where Washington unexpectedly cuts off his assailant's hand and the scene where Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour play Anita Lee's Ring My Bell on their wind up gramophone.

One of the recurring complaints about the film is that "it is too religious" perhaps arising from the sheer number of followers of the Richard Dawkins school of pseudo-philosophy who are trained to reject anything with religious connotations, however I thought that the film actually made quite a strong critique of religion. The sinister side of religion is made clear from Oldman's desire to use the Bible for political control to the sheer number of people killed because of the religious quest of a single man. The single biggest blow to the idea that the film has some kind of pro-Christian agenda is the fact that when they arrive at the new utopia on Alcatraz Island the utopian society was already being built on a foundation of Mozart, Wagner, Shakespeare and the Encyclopedia Britannica with no need for Christianity at all.

In comparison with other post-apocalyptic films it must rank as one of the better efforts for the spectacularly desolate cinematography, the quality fight sequences and Denzel Washington's coolness. If you enjoyed 28 Days Later, I am Legend or The Road you will probably enjoy this too, but as with all of the aforementioned films it has it's faults too, the absurdity of Carnegie's lumbering fleet of heavily armoured vehicles burning gallons of precious diesel to chase down a book, the unbelievable ease with which the fugitives find a serviceable rowing boat to make the crossing to Alcatraz Island and the fact that the film acknowledges the durability of digital media such as Eli's MP3 player but neglects the millions of digitised copies of the Bible that should have been retained on hard drives and MP3 players across the United States.

It seems that many critics are upset because what they really crave from a post-apocalyptic film is a "new Mad Max" to re-enliven the genre but that just isn't going to happen. The genre has moved on and the crazy Australian lunacy of the Mad Max trilogy looks increasingly low budget and outdated. As a teenager I was a huge fan of Mad Max but in objective comparison to The Book of Eli it doesn't win on many counts except it's deserved cult status and it's car chases.

It is hard to accept a general dislike of the post-apocalyptic genre amongst critics as a valid reason to rate The Book of Eli so poorly but many of them had little else to fall back on. In my opinion the post-apocalyptic genre is a potentially rich science-fiction genre which is all too often let down by the reliance on clunky traditional Hollywood story lines, the two dimensional characters necessary to fulfil roles in such tired and predictable plots and the imposition of contemporary cultural values in a setting that should be the perfect opportunity to explore society or the individual without the familiar constraints of contemporary values. 

This film does not stretch the boundaries of the genre as I would have liked. In fact I had no expectation that it would after I heard that the main character was attempting to save the last copy of the Bible, so I watched it with pretty low expectations and was pleasantly surprised by the cinematography, the fight sequences and the number of times it made me laugh.  I will have to continue waiting for a post-apocalyptic film to match the achievements in sci-fi literature such as Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham or even the kid's book Brother in the Land by Robert Swindles but I would be happy to fill some of the waiting time watching films of this quality.

Overall review: 4 (what does this mean)

See also

The Book of Eli at Wikipedia
The Book of Eli at Rotten Tomatoes

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