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

23 January 2011


Pandorum is a German-American science fiction film of the interstellar horror genre directed by Christian Alvert and released in 2009. 

The film features Dennis Quid and Ben Foster who find themselves awoken from "hypersleep" sealed in a room on board a interstellar cruiser. Foster's character escapes to find unimaginable chaos going on in the ship and embarks on a mission to bring order to the situation.

The film met with little critical acclaim and was described as "derivative" and slagged off elsewhere as an example of why sci-fi is dead. It seemed pretty unlikely that reviews written with the presumption that the film is part of a dead genre featuring in their opening paragraph would give us much useful insight into the quality of the picture. Even if we take into account the relative unpopularity of the sci-fi genre, ratings amongst critics are remarkably poor for a high budget film. Audience responses were much better with the film given a B rating on the audience response site Box Office Mojo.

The general view amongst professional reviewers seems to be that they didn't enjoy the film and that it is probably best left to science fiction fans to enjoy, a view supported by a 4/5 rating on the sci-fi website SFX. The reviewer claims that it is an "intelligent SF masquerading as a big, dumb action movie" a statement which could have only been written by someone with complete ignorance of or disdain for the concept of hard sci-fi. I would say the reverse is true this is a big, dumb action movie masquerading as intelligent SF.

To his credit the SFX reviewer does pick up on a number of fatal flaws in the film that would have had the hard sci-fi fans grinding their teeth, however his claim that the "the creatures’ origins eventually make logical sense" could only have been written by someone with a very limited understanding of genetic processes given the impossibility of evolutionary survival of the fittest creating ultra strong, near invincible fighting machines from human stock within only a few dozen generations even given the mythical "artificial accelerant" cited by the ships botanist as an explanation. 

There are a number of other gaping flaws which I do not have the inclination to list, however I will briefly discuss one that nobody else seems to have picked up on, which is the complete disregard for the physics of gravity. The film started promisingly with a ship designed with massive ring like structures which given enough spin could create the gravitational forces necessary to keep the charactor's feet on the floor, however when the plot twist about the ships location is unveiled the whole gravitational basis of the film is ruined. The floor would be as likely to be a wall or the ceiling in a ship built with a concentric gravitational system were it to be lying motionless on the surface of a planet, however the characters never faced this necessary problem providing another devestating blow to the believability of the film.

Most reviews seem to be wrong about the film, the general reviews were generally negative while the general audience actually seemed to like the film quite a lot. The concession by general reviewers that sci-fi fans would like it is just wrong because it is clearly a weak example of the sci-fi genre and the sci-fi review at SFX is not nearly hard enough on the film from a sci-fi perspective.

My main problem with the film is that it tries to make itself an "intelligent sci-fi" film in completely the wrong way, devoting far too much screen time to long explanatory monologues from various characters instead of allowing the circumstances become clear through osmosis. An example being the long ranting monologue from the crew member turned cannibal given to his captives, apparently only levered into the film to add more explanatory guff. Why on earth would the old git have bothered to take the time to enlighten his fellow crew mates about the ship's history if his only intention was to eat them? In fact my favourite character in the film is Cung Lee's agricultural worker turned martial arts survivalist who only speaks Vietnamese which saves him the chore of delivering one of these tedious monologues. This film would have been much better had they given up their efforts to justify their sci-fi credentials, concentrated on making this a non-stop action film and spent more effort on creating characters worthy of audience empathy.

Despite all of my criticism the film does do many things well, it provides plenty of dramatic tension, a foreboding atmosphere, enjoyable action sequences, a few memorable fight scenes and the gratuitous gore and grime of a good horror film.

My view is that if you enjoy action packed horror films you will probably enjoy this for what it is, if you are the kind of sci-fi fan that has never read or only dabbled in reading sci-fi you will also probably like it, however if you have ever been a prolific science fiction reader or see yourself as a bit of a film critic the cack handed pretension at being an "intelligent sci-fi" film is bound to annoy.

Overall review: 3  (what does this mean)

See also

Pandorum on IMDB
Pandorum at Wikipedia
Pandorum at Rotten Tomatoes