(by Dustin Putman
It is with much solace that "The Book of Eli," directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, aspires to be more than its advertising suggests. From the trailers, the film looked like nothing more than a heartless, ugly, fight-filled version of 2009's "The Road." In actuality, the plot has a few more complexities to it than that—elements that help to individualize it, if not quite raise it above the pack, from the never-ending genre of post-apocalyptic doom and gloom. Thematically open to interpretation, the picture's ultimate messages of a religious connotation look to inadvertently point in the opposite direction of what was intended, but still make for something to think about at the end. Unfortunately, much of what comes before this inspired third act is strictly of the been-there-done-that variety, not helped by poorly developed characters and a tedious middle section that stops the momentum dead in its tracks. Article continues below
Set within an unspecified future that might be closer than we think, the planet is thirty years removed from a "blast" that destroyed most of mankind. Out of the dirt, dust and rubble walks Eli (Denzel Washington), a self-sufficient loner heading west to the ocean. When his travels lead him to a small community lorded over by the power-hungry Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the discovery that Eli carries not only a book—a precious commodity—but perhaps even a version of the Bible, sends the ruthless leader into a desperate frenzy to obtain it. Now, with Eli and Carnegie's fed-up daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) on the run, he and his burly henchmen quickly close in.
Early word has labeled "The Book of Eli" as unsubtle Christian propaganda. Without specifically giving away the provocatively loaded final twenty minutes—blessedly hidden in the promotional campaign, it deserves to be noted—one could almost read it as the antithesis of a gung-ho pro-religion doctrine. Whether intentional or not, the screenplay by debuting writer Gary Whitta suggests that the words of the Bible are probably a bunch of hooey, passed down from mortal to mortal with any number of mistakes, flourishes and misunderstandings thrown into it. Directors Allen and Albert Hughes likely believed they were making an ultimately inspirational action-western, but they have ended up with something curiously more pessimistic than uplifting. No matter what the viewer takes away from the picture, at least there's something at all to take away from it.
As for the rest of the film, it is decidedly rough-going for a long time. The opening catches the eye—a sphinx cat comes to feast on a dead body lying in the midst of an ominously ashen forest, unaware it is about to become the hunted—and the proceeding twenty minutes or so keep things fairly riveting as Eli's journey is met with silences broken up by deadly thieves, hijackers and vagabonds on the prowl. Once Eli arrives in Carnegie's town, however, the movie rolls over and dies for an hour. Slow and ponderous without pondering much of anything, this lugubrious second act (continuing right up until Eli and Solara are invited into the home of a cheeky older couple, played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) lacks the depth of character and mounting relationships to withhold its spinning wheels. Because of this, there is little suspense or even care in finding out the players' fates.
Denzel Washington (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") cuts a stoic figure as self-made prophet Eli, but hasn't the chance to test or expand his abilities or emotions. Where does Eli come from? What happened in his past? How does he know where he is headed? These questions and many more are left up in the air. As boiling antagonist Carnegie, Gary Oldman (2009's "The Unborn") rants and growls with the best of them, embodying a villain worthy of loving to hate. Mila Kunis (2009's "Extract") plays his grown daughter, a heroine who teams up with Eli through her powers of persuasion. Kunis is just fine in the part, but she and Washington do not share strong enough chemistry for their friendship to make the emotional impact it needs. Jennifer Beals (2006's "The Grudge 2") runs with the key supporting role of Claudia, Solara's blind mother whose own brand of vengeance after years of imperious rule is long overdue.
Photgraphed by Don Burgess (2009's "Aliens in the Attic") in appropriate, if not visually stimulating, sepia tones that verge on black-and-white, "The Book of Eli" is a film of many sides, most of them not worthwhile enough to be able to quite recommend it. A climactic shootout and chase technically impresses, while a fast tracking shot of trucks barreling down the road is filled with such movement and vibrancy after tens of minutes of morose stillness that they come as something of a godsend. The bulk of the film, though, is overly familiar and rather chilly, paced unevenly and not able to live up to the ambition with which things culminate. Furthermore, a big reveal in the last minutes casts what has come before in a different light, and not in an airtight "The Sixth Sense" sort of way, either. Thinking back over things, there's only one conclusion to be drawn: the movie doesn't play fair. "The Book of Eli" has its attributes, not the least being its ability to present religious themes into the mix without getting preachy or spelling out a specific moral stance. What is lacking, then, is its humanity. With a more straightforward story and an embrace of poetic simplicity over bombast and gimmicks, "The Road" outdoes "The Book of Eli" in just about every way, making the end of the world seem downright devastating rather than merely brown.