Overstylized, overdramatic and overcooked are all understatements when describing Albert and Allen Hughes’ The Book of Eli. The only facet of it I can speak highly of is Gary Oldman, who finally returns to the baddie throne he built so long ago. Otherwise, the film is just an exercise in technological possibilities on the part of the directors and their team. We come along for their ride.
Let’s start with the visuals, which is clearly where The Hughes Brothers devoted most of their efforts. Taking a page out of the Sin City and 300 playbooks, the film is mostly greenscreened footage over a hyper-realistic backdrop. It’s a style, no doubt, but one that is more grating than it is interesting in this instance. Shot on the RED camera, foreground imagery seems to break apart very quickly, at least on the print I saw. I don’t care how many “K”s they put in the resolution, it really did not mix well with the synthesized backgrounds. Besides that, this steampunk-chic post-apocalypse is nothing new to audiences. So what do the Hughes Brothers bring to the table that maybe we haven’t seen before? God!
Religion, specifically Christianity, is also a staple of any horror film worth its salt, but rarely is it ever forefronted as in The Book of Eli. In short, Denzel Washington, as the title character, heard a voice tell him to take the only remaining copy of the King James Bible westward, so he does. That’s all well and good plot-wise. Not only is a prophetic act of faith a classical convention, but travelling West on a mission is about as basically litereary as you can get; this plot ought to be an easy enough canvas to work with.
Enter Carnegie, the aptly named robber-baron who has built a cannibal-free town through might alone. Played by Gary Oldman, this is the first time in about a decade the British actor has embraced the his darker side. It suits him well and it is nice to see him back in snarling form, but that doesn’t change the fact that his character’s motivation is positively trivial. In order to further rule over the scum of the earth, Carnegie sends teams out every day in search of a bible. He explains that the book will give him supreme power over the weakest walks of society, which is already everyone but him. When Eli strolls into town, of course, the conflict comes with him. Gun battles ensue with organized religion in the crosshairs, but the matter is dealt with so moronically, there may as well be no conflict. With no conflict, we have a movie I chuckle through while everyone else tries to pay attention.
Denzel broods, but it isn’t enough to save his character from futile silliness. Early in the film, we see him pop in some earphones and go through his evening routine. This is where the actor shines, expressing his brute force during even the most sensitive of moments. The performance is nothing near the multilayered characters he has built with action collaborator Tony Scott. In the last ten years, Mr. Washington has been working through his stardom, digging deeper and deeper on every outing for the beast within each role. He is an action hero, and he bucks up here and offers as much as he can.
Now about those headphones. (This is about to get nerdy) We know the film takes place at least thirty-one years after “the sky opened”, so everything has been in the shitter for awhile. Using, I assume, a solar charger, Eli whips out a 3rd generation iPod (the same one featured in Wes Anderson’s justifiably vintage The Darjeeling Limited), which was introduced in 2003. The he grabs some Dr. Dre Beats headphones, which are displayed prominently a few times and were introduced, at the earliest, in 2008. Besides the fact that iPod batteries rarely last more than two years, when the hell did this apocalypse happen?! How much of a hipster was Eli that he kept his five year old iPod laying around when he bought brand new $200 Beats just before the world turned to poo? (Last niggle: where did Mila Kunis get all those form fitting jeans if all the Gaps and Diesels perished before she was born?) I’d like to ignore the little things like this, but without a decent conflict, I had to focus on something for two hours.
Finally, I’d like to mention the only other thing worth mentioning (pejoratively) in this film: the long take. Just like Atonement before it, The Book of Eli features a shot whose purpose is to show off the technical, and this case technological, prowess of the people behind it. A climactic gunfight features a handheld camera that bobs and weaves between bullets, through windows, under cars and over rockets. It’s ridiculous, but the real trouble with it is that the scene would only be enhanced by editing. I am so tired of filmmakers doing things for the sake of doing them. Is it a feat of cinematic science? Sure it is, but what’s the point if the scene doesn’t call for it? I implore younger filmgoers to consider these things when they watch the RPG-like scene go down. I’m sure praise will be heaped on cinematographer Don Burgess in certain circles for pulling this off, but one must ask why the shot exists. If you can come up with an answer that suits you, then you’re set. I cannot.
Ultimately, The Book of Eli could have been a much better film if only the villain’s motivation were a a bit more foreboding and the anachronistic goofiness, manifested in unfortunate product placement, were nixed. The post- apocalypse seems like a fun place to play, I only wish this film didn’t offer so much more of the same we’ve been seeing for years. It’s an overwrought Mad Max with a biblical twist. That should either sell you or not.