The Book of Eli [2010]

Post-apocalypse movies are not my usual fare. ‘2012’, ‘The Day After’, and so forth, do not appeal to me. Generally they seem to be of a genre that caters to American Survivalist Movement fantasies, which interests me not at all, and they are almost invariably taken from a uniquely American cultural perspective, which is alien to my outlook.

The Book of Eli, however, has an unusual direction. Its theme is not simply survival but continuation through faith. The premise is simple; if you believe absolutely, then absolutely anything is possible.

The story begins with Eli [Denzel Washington], a lone man in a bleak world, hunting and killing a cat using a dead man’s body as bait. Carrying his prey he trudges through a barren landscape to a deserted shack, where, having first taken the boots from a corpse he finds hanging in a cupboard, he cooks and eats his meal. That night he reads from a book that he carries with him, an old leather-bound book that is kept carefully wrapped in cloth, a book that he takes the time to read from every day.

The next day he encounters a group of bandits and we learn that Eli can use a cane-knife with almost supernatural speed and accuracy. Leaving the piled corpses behind he walks on across a lifeless land strewn with debris and rubbish. As the story progresses we learn that there was a war many years before, a war that tore the sky open and the world was scorched of all life save those few who by chance were at the time in underground places. Few survived. Those that did were forced to fight over the few remaining scraps of civilization. As Eli says at one point ‘we threw away things that we now fight to the death for’.

Moving on from the scene of carnage, Eli comes at last to a small town populated by the wretched remnants of humanity and run by a boss-man called Carnegie [Gary Oldman]. Carnegie’s woman, Claudia [Jennifer Beals] is blind and she has a daughter, Solara [Mila Kunis]. His right-hand man is Redridge [Ray Stevenson, playing the sort of part that he plays so very well]. More than anything else Carnegie wants  books and has built up something of a library, but there is one book above all that he desires, a book that he cannot find. It is a very special book, he knows, for he studied it in his youth before the war. It has the power to influence minds, and he who controls the book can command its power over others.

Eli, he discovers, has a copy of this very special book, a book known only as The Bible. It may be the last copy in existence, for we learn that the Bible had something to do with the outbreak of that last, devastating war, and that afterwards all copies that could be found were burned. Carnegie offers to purchase the book from Eli, who refuses. There is a shootout in the street and we learn that Eli’s skill with a firearm is as uncanny and as lethal as his skill with a cane-knife. Carnegie is wounded and left in the street amid the carnage of his cohorts. Eli walks on, for he is on a mission: many years before he heard a voice inside him, a voice that directed him to the book where it lay hidden under rubble, and told him to go west.

Thirty years later he is still heading west, and nothing is going to stop him. What is there he does not know, nor why he is going, nor what he must do when he gets there, but he has to go there just the same. All he knows is that his faith will tell him what to do when the time comes.

Eli moves on relentlessly, now followed by Solara, who has become fascinated in her turn with the book and the journey. They come to a derelict house where they meet George [Michael Gambon] and Martha [Frances De La Tour], an eccentric elderly couple brilliantly portrayed by these two veteran British character actors, who have eked out an existence by killing and eating the occasional passers-by. They are invited in for a cup of tea and a sandwich [!!]. They drink the tea but refuse the food, and as they are about to depart the roar of engines approaching sounds in the distance; Carnegie has followed them. He invites them to come out and surrender the book, in which case all will be forgiven, but of course Eli refuses. What follows is a fire-fight on the grand scale as only American cinema can mount, and we learn that Carnegie has some serious firepower at his disposal.

The house is almost demolished in the brief but fierce battle, George and Martha go down with guns blazing, and Eli and Solara are dragged from the rubble. Carnegie shoots Eli, takes the book and gives Solara to Redridge, leaving Eli to die alone in the dust. But Solara is more resourceful than Carnegie would have believed. She contrives to force the vehicle in which she is travelling to run off the road, killing its other occupants, and to destroy a second vehicle-load of heavies. Carnegie seems about to try to recover her, but shrugs. He has the book; let the desert have her.

Now motorised, Solara returns to the derelict house to find Eli gone. She overtakes him on the road as he struggles on remorselessly to the west, even though his book has gone, and together they drive the relatively short distance to a ruinous San Francisco. Here they find themselves a rowboat which they doggedly row out to the island of Alcatraz, where they discover an organised colony that is run on more civilised lines than that of Carnegie. But they also want a copy of the Bible, having been unable to find one for themselves. Does Eli have one?

He does, he tells them, to Solara’s astonishment. Only then do Eli’s condition and his astonishing tenacity become plain, and all becomes clear in the last ten minutes of the movie.

This is not a movie on which to make a snap assessment. It requires a few days of reflection to fully realise its implications. I certainly did not write this assessment in one hit; I had to do it piecemeal over a period of days, and it was well worth the effort of slow examination.

The Book of Eli must stand out as one of the top half dozen movies of the year. Its genre is hard to define; it appears initially as a standard action movie, a post-apocalypse movie. The we realise that is has strong elements of the classic western movie, coupled with a science fiction theme. Then finally it is revealed as a complex visual parable on the power of faith, but faith in only a superficially Christian context. It is not the Bible itself that is important, it is belief in the Bible and its teachings. Eli becomes a figure of both tragedy and power, a mighty, solitary figure, a latter-day Elijah or Isaiah, driven by his vision to achieve something that only he can perceive, able to achieve it through a strength that wells up from his unshakeable faith.

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