Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Book of Eli

The title of this movie reflects the intention by the movie's crew to be really clever. "Book of Eli" can be read in so many different ways—is it a book about Eli, a book written by Eli? Is it perhaps Eli's book? Unfortunately this ham-handed cleverness drives what could have been a (more) thoughtful movie, making it only merely entertaining.

There is a comparison to be made here to the far more successful Avatar, in that the movie is taking a tried and true genre of speculative fiction and trying to move past the trap of just appealing to fan boys and doing something with the genre. Avatar took the planetary romance and livened it with spectacular visuals, not being so concerned with the details of the story and being comfortable with awestruck viewers who later realized that the plot was rather thin. The Book of Eli on the other hand, takes a speculative fiction and now cinema staple, the post-apocalyptic story, and attempts to go somewhere beyond "gee, wouldn't that suck?". That goal should be appreciated, and it buys the filmmakers some points for bravery. However, while believing on the one hand that their viewer could get to a theme that was more thoughtful than the end of the world, they seemed to think that the same viewer was not a very good reader/viewer and must be bashed repeatedly in the head with what the movie is trying to mean. And then there is an extra layer of misdirection at the plot level, which does nothing so much as obscure the point the movie was trying to make.

From the opening sequence, we are supposed to be impressed both with Eli (played strongly by Denzel Washington) and with the cinematography. In the opening scene, Eli is hunting against a background that is either night or a very washed out day. He makes an amazing shot with a footbow, and we should be impressed by his skill at a weapon that is rarely seen. We also discover that everything in the movie will be washed out, filmed in shades of gray and brown, presumably the result of whatever caused the world as we know it to come to an end. We follow Eli for about a day, watching his habits and patterns—his reading and his constant attempts at cleanliness in these worst of conditions. Eli's reading consists of the Bible, which I could wish was a spoiler, but the trailers and commercials all give it away and, in fact, given the movie's focus, the real spoiler would be if it w as any other book at all. We also get to see Eli go up against a gang of cannibals, dispatching them with something like regret despite his tremendous hand-to-hand skill.

Eventually he arrives in a town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), and we watch Carnegie go through a stack of books brought to him by another gang, disgusted that what he wants is not among them. Questioned by an assistant, Carnegie talks about the power of words and how he could shape the town to his ends if only he had The Book to which he could point as the authority behind his power. It should be ridiculously obvious that The Book is The Bible, and how fortunate that Eli has just arrived in town with one. But it's not at all clear how this should work; in his diatribe about trying to find the Bible, Carnegie talks about how a war broke out and all the Bibles in the world were destroyed as a result of the belief that it led to the war. So if the Bible were feared or hated so much, why would its reappearance now be of any benefit at all? And the movie makes it clear that almost everyone left is illiterate, so why does it have to be that particular book—wouldn't just holding up any book and pretending to quote from it be enough to convince the uneducated masses of the validity of his rule? It appears there is supposed to be ambiguity about Carnegie, that perhaps he is only doing what he must to survive, especially since at one point Carnegie asks Eli to pray for him. But that one request does not balance well against the rest of the movie where he is corrupt, spiteful, and just mean. I think the point is that this is the kind of man that claims to follow the Bible, but the extended metaphor is very dicey throughout the film.

Eli eventually escapes Carnegie with his step-daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) in tow. He still has his Bible, refusing to give it up since he is carrying it westward because a voice has told him so and Carnegie's town is not the rightful resting place for it. Eli reads from the Bible and quotes it to Solara, sounding more and more mystical as the film goes on. The stark contrast between Carnegie and Eli makes the point for the movie—the power of the Bible lies not in its words but in the actions it causes it readers to take. And of course, those words can be (have been) twisted to the user's end, but if one is merely open to the meaning behind them, …insert your fluffy ending here. You'll be one with the Buddha, you'll get your just reward, the world will be a better place…whatever. Such a morality is good so far as it goes but it takes too much responsibility off people. It's far too simplistic to blame the actions for individuals on the books they read because it is far harder to understand why a person does what he does. Yet the movie doesn't seem to get its own point since Eli is determined to hang on to the Bible, whereas if the meaning of the book were more important, he could be able to let it go. It all seems so straightforward as you watch it unfolding, with its interesting cinematography and wildly improbable combat effects. It just doesn't stand up to very much scrutiny as we admire Washington and Oldman doing what they do best—Washington being stoic and taciturn and Oldman chewing scenery.

And then the movie does its twist ending—actually a double twist. And with those twists, everything the movie has been trying to accomplish is thrown into doubt. Suddenly Eli, who we feel we know somewhat, is someone else. It's really difficult to talk about the ending at all without spoiling it, so I'm not going to try. But it does have an interesting effect—on the one hand, it seemed awful simplistic such that I was disappointed. But on the other hand, its very simplicity calls into question the rest of the movie—surely they couldn't have meant to be so obvious…but if not, what are they trying to say? The result is that while I have had more conversations about Avatar than The Book of Eli, the more interesting conversations have been about Eli, including discussions of meaning and symbolism with people who don't usually seem to be very interested in such conversations.

So I am left with both a disappointed feeling as the movie seems to fail at what it wants to say so ham-handedly, but it's a near-miss, causing people to talk about what happened, which I expect any creator would be delighted with. As for recommending the movie, it's hard to say. It's a fairly standard adventure yarn, predictable but stylish, until suddenly it isn't. And what it becomes is either unbelievable tripe or a conversation starter. I think cinephiles and end-of-the-world fans should make an effort to see The Book of Eli while it is in theaters, but if you fall outside those categories, it's still worth a rental.

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