The trailers for THE BOOK OF ELI did nothing for me. It looked like an over-stylized yet still monotone vision of the future banking on Denzel Washington’s inherently badass attitude and a number of quickly cut together action scenes. Plus, it’s been 8 years since the Hughes Brothers made a movie, so buzzing the production as the latest film from the Hughes Brothers is meaningless to me. It is with great relief, then, that I’m happy to report, to my own surprise, I liked THE BOOK OF ELI. Truth is, I almost even loved it.
Don’t let the marketing fool you. The Hughes Brothers have delivered a unique meditation on life after the end of times that does its best to be the polar opposite of everything the trailer looked like. Denzel Washington plays the titular character (Eli, not the book), a man who has dedicated his life to walking west on a mission, a mission I will be touching upon below. I’m not going to be spoiling anything huge (or non-obvious), but if you know next to nothing about THE BOOK OF ELI and want to keep it that way, I leave you here with a simple verdict: Yes, it’s worth a trip to the theater.
The world has gone to shit. Gary Whitta’s script doesn’t spell out the particulars of what brought about Armageddon, but the severe lack of population density and decimated landscape looks like every nation in the world with the means to do so pressed the button. Minuscule pockets of people managed to survive the apocalypse, however, and the story follows our hero, Eli, and his often fatal interactions with other wasteland wanderers on his slow, west-bound trek across total desolation. He encounters a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who runs a small town that has access to trickles of precious H2O. Carnegie, it is established, is looking for an unnamed book that he calls “a weapon”…
The movie doesn’t tell you right away, but you’d have to be not only blind but completely ignorant not to figure out that the mysterious leather-bound book that Eli spends every night reading and every day protecting like its the water purification chip for Vault 13 or the Garden of Eden Creation Kit is, in fact, the Bible. But before you assume that Warner Brothers has put out a movie with a message that says only God can save all of mankind, let me dispel that assumption. THE BOOK OF ELI is not advocating any religion. It’s not saying the world needs Christianity to function. Its only commentary is on faith; on how simply believing in something – anything – can motivate the mind beyond the body’s ravaged limitations. One of the (many) things I like about the Hughes Brothers’ film and Whitta’s script is that it’s still not that simple.
To talk about why it’s not that simple would indeed be revealing things a review shouldn’t, but regardless of which side of the ideological fence the film ultimately teeters on to (and there’s little question where it falls), it’s still an interesting premise that the Hughes Brothers leverage to give the film extra dimensions worth further examination. But let’s not forget that this site is called Horror’s Not Dead, so I’ll step away from the ideas the film rolls around with and talk about why it should appeal to anyone reading a site called Horror’s Not Dead.
For starters, death rarely looks this striking on the big screen. I’m not talking about just the people, though they are often dispatched in the most glorious ways by a convincingly hardcore Denzel Washington wielding a long, lethal machete. The whole package is a magnificent portrait of what happens when everything kicks the bucket. People, animals, buildings, dreams…all of civilization. The directing pair do a fantastic job of convincing us everything we know now has been laid waste. An accomplishment made possible by hiring not just great actors – Washington and Oldman are great, but the supporting cast of Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and even Mila Kunis are all up to the bar set by the film’s leads – and not just with an outstanding sense of visual style, but by delivering a sound design so strong that even non-audiophiles should pick up on its vivid purpose.
The main thing holding THE BOOK OF ELI back from being an outright excellent film is a waffling final act that’s capped off with a poorly executed ending. The actual resolution of the story isn’t a problem, but how the ending treats certain characters is just plain poor. And that’s unfortunate, because everything leading up to it is really something special. The action choreography is top notch throughout and is even, at times, a thing of dark, blood-spilling beauty. Acting is everything you expect from the big names and even more from the littler ones. The cinematography will swallow you up in damn near every shot. The vigilant sound design heightens every layer of the experience. And all of this is in service of interesting ideas that will, flaws and all, render THE BOOK OF ELI a topic worth talking about anytime post-apocalyptic movies are brought up.