Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli reduces western civilization to two basic elements: the Bible and the iPod. Both are rather fitting touchstones for this film, considering its combination of piety with music-video aesthetics. This is empty style sanctified by strained allegory—the semblance of a good time perverted by decency.

The bearer of those two artifacts is Eli (Denzel Washington), a sort of vagabond ninja safeguarding the last remaining Bible against those who would abuse it. Wandering a wasteland America, he searches for a place where the book can be properly respected and revered. His travels are interrupted by the machinations of Carnegie (Gary Oldman providing some stock villainy), tyrannical ruler of a small settlement who has spent years searching for a Bible to help cement his power over the last remnants of humanity.

Buried somewhere beneath all this solemn sludge there is a harmless, if slight, B-movie, complete with genteel old cannibals serving their victims tea on the fine china. This material is far too ridiculous to be afforded any reverence, but the Hughes brothers suffocate it with their earnest approach. Serious only works when you have something significant to say. Instead, we have Eli acting like a cross between Jesus and Batman, dispensing of threatening goons with the slightest flick of his machete while teaching wayward women how to say grace. I have such a hard time not laughing at this that I don’t know how to trust someone who takes it seriously.

On a fairly basic level, the film doesn’t even really work. Characters fight over the Bible as if it was an atom bomb, but there’s no real reason why the book should be so significant, aside from simple Christian narcissism. After all, if Carnegie wants to enslave the desperate masses with religion, why does he need the Bible to do this? Wouldn’t any religion do? A copy of Dianetics would do the trick as well as the Bible. Considering almost no one knows about the world before the apocalypse—a rather inexplicable detail in itself—Carnegie could even preach with the aid of that surprisingly well-preserved copy of O Magazine that turns up and none would be the wiser.

Ah, but that would require a) an understanding of religion beyond the fact that some people apparently dig the Bible for some reason, and b) a sense of humour, neither of which this film possesses in any noticeable degree. This is a joyless work, not spiritual but merely pious. It uses the self-destructiveness of humanity as an excuse to peddle hope, which is comparable to—and only marginally less pathetic than—composing your own obituary as an excuse to write nice things about yourself.

Combined with The Road, this means 2009 had at least two self-serious post-apocalyptic movies too many. How many of these maudlin, masturbatory exercises must we suffer through? Each wallows in cruelty and violence only to tack on a bogus sense of uplift at the end, like a reward for sitting through two hours of washed-out brown-grey wastelands (the first victims of the bomb are primary colours, apparently). This is a rigged game from the start, stacking the odds with unabashed evil so that the untainted good is more plausible. The palette of these films is distinctly grey—the morality is anything but.

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