Author’s Note:: The following review may contain minor spoilers. I’ve stayed away from the big ones but, felt it necessary to dip into a few bumpy details. You’ve been warned.
The Book of Eli is kind of like watching The Book of Mormon filmed and rewritten as a futuristic action movie, except with fewer hot bitches. It fantasizes a world in which everything has been wiped out and Christianity must be re-introduced to America by a lone traveler wandering North America’s blasted landscape and carrying a mysterious book. Guess what that book is?
You’ll figure it out within the first ten minutes and then spend the rest of the movie hoping that Eli’s square package actually contains apple seeds, because what’s in there is just too lame. It’s lame because it’s too easy and too obvious. It’s lame because it’s impossible that any one copy of it would ever be that valuable. The Bible is the best selling book of all time. Most sources estimate more than six billion copies have been sold. The next runner up is the Qur’an, which has only 800 million copies in circulation, yet it survives Book of Eli’s holocaust with no problem.
Eli attempts to compensate for that math with the ridiculous claim that during the apocalypse everyone went a little crazy and, while they were burning to death, going blind, and hiding in caves; stopped to torch every bible on planet Earth while blaming it for civilization’s downfall. Oddly, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” survived. No offense Dan Brown, but when the book burning starts, your name will be at the top of my kindling list. Also on the survival list is the AK-47, which, is now more widely available than water
The Bible, for better or worse, is impossible to eradicate. In a world where iPods have survived and seem not only functional but easy to recharge, the notion that Bibles have not is impossible to swallow. The Book of Eli is off to a shaky start. Of course it gets worse. Eli’s copy is in Braille. That’s right, it’s in Braille. Because of the page thickness necessary to accommodate Braille writing, the average Braille King James comes in 18 volumes, takes up 60 inches of shelf space, and weighs 64lbs. Inexplicably, Eli’s copy fits in a single, handsomely leather-bound edition. Truly he must be the messenger of God. It’s the greatest miracle since Jesus fed thousands with a basket full of leftovers.
In the name of protecting his book until some unspecified time when it will be safe, Eli wanders around cutting off limbs and defeating bad guys, but the not so subtle subtext here is that he’s a prophet, the literal hand of god, and he survives through god’s power. He’s been walking to California from New York for the past 30 years, a trip which according to Google Maps should take around 38 days. Eli claims he’s been guided by his faith, which, would seem to be a pretty good argument for why faith isn’t such a good idea. Neither Eli, nor screenwriter Gary Whitta, nor the film’s directors the Hughes Brothers, seem to notice. They’re too busy pumping in Christian propaganda.
The movie’s most critical moment happens not in the midst of a firefight, but in a candlelit room where Eli teaches Mila Kunis’s prostitute character Solara to pray. It’s not so much that these things go on which makes the movie propaganda, rather it’s the out of proportion reaction characters seem to have to them. Solara, who has never even heard of religion let alone contemplated a deity, hears “Our Father” for the first time and rather than questioning what all this gobbeldy gook about a father in heaven means she’s instantly transformed into a religious zealot. The film treats the words in the Bible as if it’s simply saying them that matters, not understanding them. So those magic words are sought after like a nuclear bomb, as if the scripture contained within it will instantly heal all the world’s ills through ownership of it, even though the entire planet has pretty much been turned into dust. But Book of Eli is utterly unaware of the illogic in any of that, lost in a strange, post-apocalyptic, Christian fervor which believes rather than thinks.
Worst of all The Book of Eli is dishonest about it’s true motives. That’s what really makes the whole thing so egregious. There are plenty of ways to effectively tell stories about Christianity and faith, it’s been done before, even in a post-apocalyptic setting. Stephen King’s The Stand does it, but it never pretends to be something it’s not. Book of Eli plays coy with its religious motives by attempting to cloak them in a gritty, miracle-free reality, but is so clumsy about it that it’s not going to fool anyone. It’s just annoying.
Except none of that is why anyone is buying a ticket for this movie. It’s been marketed as a Road Warrior style action-flick in which Denzel Washington wanders the desert with Mila Kunis kicking ass. And in the movie’s few brief scenes where there’s ass to be kicked, Denzel does a good job of kicking it. When called upon The Book of Eli is brutal, and bloody. Eli’s weapon of choice is a wicked blade, occasionally put to work hacking off limbs or leaving spurting stab wounds. It looks good too. Book of Eli’s stark visual style serves those action scenes well. For anyone who watched The Road and wished Viggo would punch a few more of those cannibal motherfuckers, Book of Eli provides an answer, albeit only in spurts. Ultimately most of the movie is spent festishizing the Bible by watching Gary Oldman piss and moan about how much he wishes he had a King James to control people with, or sitting around while Denzel prays and reads and then prays some more.
If you’re expecting action, you’ll be disappointed to find mostly empty religious propaganda. Even if you’re on board with a little bit of Christianity in your post-apocalyptic action movie, you’re still unlikely to walk away satisfied. The Christianity presented in Book of Eli is base and dishonest, clumsy and without any of the meaning contained in the Biblical ideology which has fed the faith of people for generations. In the hands of the Hughes brothers, the apocalypse is just an opportunity for religious conversion, and the Bible is a weapon to be wielded like a club in the service of an empty, ill-conceived message. The Book of Eli is insulting to anyone who takes their faith seriously and so full of plot holes that it’s irreconcilably confusing to anyone who doesn’t.