Arts and Culture

'Book of Eli'

Some apocalypses are worse than others.

By Steve Burgess 15 Jan 2010 |

Steve Burgess is tanned, rested and ready to go to work making sense of 2010 culture.

Lately you can't so much as go for a popcorn refill without the world coming to an end. From I Am Legend to 2012 to The Road, and now comes Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli, the Hughes Brothers' version of the End Times. Some apocalypses -- apocalypti? -- are worse than others. 2012 had planes and luxury sedans. The Road had rusty shopping carts and cannibalism. The Book of Eli probably lands somewhere in the middle of that grim spectrum, except for one bone-chilling revelation: in this dark vision of the future people use wind-up gramophones to play 12-inch disco singles of Anita Ward's Ring My Bell. Truly, in such times one prays for sweet death.

The Book of Eli differs from the others in another way, and the title is a tip-off. It may not follow the traditional track of the Book of Revelations, but this is a Christian fable nonetheless. The Book of Eli is all about the power of the Word. And some nifty knife work.

May I borrow that book?

Washington is Eli, a wandering prophet in a post-war wasteland. It's a desert, of course -- as sure as the Eiffel Tower appears in Paris windows, the Apocalypse always happens in the desert. And don't forget the broken overpasses and washed-out lighting. Got to have those.

Although this ruined world looks not unlike that of The Road, we soon realize it's a different kind of place. Washington's Bruce Lee moves and Julia Child knife skills clue us in that this particular Armageddon is taking place in Hollywood. Eli is the Man! He really is -- he's on a mission and carries protection so powerful it seems to deflect bullets. He is carrying a book. A local potentate named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants that book. "It's a weapon," he crows. "I know its power. People will hear the words and understand why they are here."

It's that book, all right. Eli is carrying a copy of the King James Bible -- the last one, it seems -- out west. Why? Because, he tells his traveling companion Solara (Mila Kunis of That 70s Show), "I heard a voice. It told me I'd be protected."

Such power do these words evidently possess that Solara begins repeating them as soon as Eli says grace over dinner. "Read it to me," the illiterate Solara pleads when Eli shows her the book. So he does, selecting the following passage from Leviticus 13:42-43: "And if there be in the bald head, or bald forehead, a white reddish sore; it is a leprosy sprung up in his bald head, or his bald forehead... and behold, if the rising of the sore be white reddish in his bald head..."

Kidding! He of course reads Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd..." Leviticus, he probably saves for parties.

Hollywood gets religion

The script throws a sop to skeptics, suggesting that the catastrophic war was religious to begin with. But there's no doubt that this is a throwback to that old time Hollywood religious magic, running from Cecil B. DeMille through Steven Spielberg and now on through the Bros. Hughes. The team that brought us Menace II Society and From Hell have brought together a cast that includes Rome's Ray Stevenson as well as Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits, Malcolm McDowell, and Michael Gambon.

If you can swallow the religious hokum, or if in fact religious hokum is to your taste, The Book of Eli may work for you. It makes you think about what the Left Behind series could have been with a little more imagination and a lot less dogma. The Book of Eli may not be particularly memorable, but neither is it the kind of cinematic dog often dumped onto the post-Christmas market. There's a clever little twist at the end. Which, along with a few ruined overpasses, is pretty much what you want from The End.

(Meanwhile, amateur theologians should keep an eye out for the shot near the finish with which the filmmakers attempt to placate Muslims and Jews. Well intentioned, but those viewers who know their Torah might wonder whether the good Eli could have saved everyone some time, paper, and ink.)  [Tyee]

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