Summary: An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.
Review: When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars. I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie. However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four. I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me. There are layers here, man. Caves of treasure to plunder.
At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you. Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust. An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long. Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge. The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe. He believes God told him to. He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book. Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends. Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.
The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow. So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.
Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale. Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast. How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place. Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society. The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.
Discipleship means imitation. It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another. As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche. If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood. It leaves us out of balance, without a center. Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience. In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world. If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential. ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.
There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival. The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated. This is a gem worth digging for.